Surrounded by hostile neighbors, Iran is a nation under constant diplomatic - and miliary - pressure. But while its quest for regional security may have led it to quietly explore weapons of mass destruction, that exploration has led it into the jaws of US criticism. Now that the US has declared war on terrorism and pronounced Iran, Iraq, and North Korea an "axis of evil," such a threat perception in Washington could yield serious consequences.
Iran is stuck in a strategic Catch 22, Western and Iranian analysts say. On one hand, it wants to portray itself as an indomitable regional power. On the other, it wants to avoid the wrath of Pentagon planners. But incur the wrath of the US it has. Washington, backed by Israel, charges that Tehran is "aggressively" pursuing weapons of mass destruction and the long-range missiles to deliver them.
Of all Washington's concerns, those of Iran's possible nuclear ambitions top the list. The CIA in early 2000 determined - controversially - that Iran was already capable of building a nuclear weapon. Just as controversial, among analysts and diplomats, a 1998 commission headed by now Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld found that Iranian missiles could cause "major destruction" to the US "within five years."
Having already declared its interest in effecting "regime change" in Iraq, a negative US assessment about Iranian intentions could pave the way for powerful US action. Israel's 1981 airstrike on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor provides a window into one possible course of action for the US - or its close ally, Israel - if they decide that Iran presents a nuclear threat. Iran's reformist President Mohammad Khatami says Iran is interested only in civilian nuclear power, and has repeatedly called for the Mideast to be turned into a zone free of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
"It's better for the American administration to decide among themselves if they want to raise the flag of war, or of dialogue," Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said this week. "America believes it is the only source of right and wrong."
Indeed, independent assessments of Iran's abilities are often at odds with official US rhetoric. But the country may have reasons entirely separate from its rivalry with the US and Israel to research weapons of mass destruction.
"Iran has 15 neighbors and no friends, and these neighbors are not the most charming," says a Western diplomat in Tehran. "They know how weak they are. They need a smokescreen - and to give the impression that it's terribly dangerous behind it."
The easiest way to create such a deterrent, the diplomat says, is to "build up a rocket program that flies,... and then leave in doubt that what you put in it is not TNT."
But Iran is having trouble putting together working advanced missiles, to say nothing of any nuclear filling. Since 1998, Iran has tested three Shahab-3 missiles, which are based on North Korea's No-Dong, and have a range of 600 miles which could reach Israel. No more than a dozen remain, by one count. Two tests failed. Russian experts brought to work on the Iranian missile project in the late 1990s, according to The Washington Post, say the program was disorganized and that they were hired largely "for show."
"There are doubts about what Iran is doing," says another Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified. "But at the same time, they are years behind entering the nuclear club, and their ballistic missile program is in difficult shape. The problem is the US and Israel say Iran is building ICBMs [inter-continental ballistic missiles]. This is questionable."
Iran's nuclear program is also far weaker than many of its already weaponized neighbors, including Pakistan and Israel. Against the wishes of the US, Russia plans to complete two civilian power reactors in Iran by September 2003.
"Iran's [nuclear] program is in shambles, and the people who read all the intelligence know that," says Amin Tarzi, an Iran specialist at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterrey Institute in California. "If anybody blows up Bushehr [reactor], they are wasting their money."
Despite the risks, Iran would have good reasons for seeking a nuclear capability, Mr. Tarzi says, regardless of who rules in Tehran.
"Pakistan showed that having nuclear weapons can change the policy of great nations," Tarzi says. "Iran looks at this, and if you are dealing with the US - especially after this 'axis of evil' business - the only thing that works is nuclear weapons. You are treated differently."
Unlike its nuclear neighbors Israel, Pakistan, and India, Iran has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and allows the UN International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect its nuclear material.
"From our point of view, Iran has been playing by the rules," says Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the IAEA in Vienna. "However, these rules, under the safeguard system that we have now, are limited."
The limitation is that Iran (along with the US and a host of other countries) has not fully ratified the "additional protocol" that enables go-anywhere inspections. But analysts say that any clandestine nuclear ambition - if only for prestige in a dangerous neighborhood - mirrors its chaotic political system and has little political commitment or money.
Per capita, Iran spends far less militarily than the US or Israel - $137 a person, as compared with $1,382 for the US and $1,515 for Israel. Still, the worst-case scenario about Iranian military ambition has influential adherents.
"It's a misunderstanding to believe you can bring security to this region without Iran and by demonizing Iran and its identity," says Mohammad Hadi Semati, a political scientist at Tehran University. "This has produced a marriage of convenience between hard-liners in Iran, Washington and Tel Aviv."