Waiting for a US-Iran handshake

Iran's diplomatic elite believe that the time has come to lead the region.

Alireza is an unassuming 20-something Iranian. He works as a producer for Iran's state broadcaster. But he is no ordinary Islamic Republic civil servant.

Alireza returned to Iran two years ago, after growing up in New York and studying at an elite Canadian university. His bilingual ability in English and Farsi, fluent Arabic, and good government connections will serve him well in the evolving Islamic Republic of the 21st century.

He is, ultimately, a symbolic face of Iran's diplomatic future. And if Iran's growing regional clout compels Washington years from now to offer Tehran allied status, Alireza could quite possibly be part of the handshake that confirms the deal.

Sitting in a plush traditional restaurant in Tehran's upscale Vanak Square one rainy afternoon last month, Alireza, who preferred that his last name not be published, reflected on Iran's regional rise.

Iranian military speedboats had recently come within firing range of US warships in the Persian Gulf, nearly provoking an international incident. The Pentagon backed down after reports of early combative rhetoric and revealed that the Iranian Navy had not threatened to "blow up" the US ships as originally claimed.

Senior Iranian military officials viewed the incident as a tactical victory that enabled them to project their power in the Persian Gulf. Beyond the diplomatic accolade of rhetorically outmaneuvering Washington, many Iranian military strategists were elated by their performance in close proximity to US warships, feeling it vindicated their asymmetrical "swarming" strategy whereby dozens of speedboats surround larger, heavily armored boats.

"We're battling might with slight," Alireza said, conveying the euphoria felt in higher ranks.

Iran's diplomatic elites assert that the time has come for their country to lead the region. With oil receipts at a record high, the Middle East's third most advanced military after Israel and Turkey, and unique geopolitical positioning between the energy hotbeds of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, Shiite-led Iran is at its strategic strongest in 30 years.

At the launching of an Iranian rocket this month, President Ahmadinejad even ventured to say, "We need to have an active and influential presence in space."

What was briefly dubbed the Sunni Axis, designed to counteract the Shiite Crescent, has collapsed in an outbreak of diplomatic overtures by Sunni-majority states Saudi Arabia and Egypt toward Iran. Mr. Ahmadinejad will make his first visit to Iraq in March.

Meanwhile, in the living rooms of Cairo and Riyadh, the Iranian president's popularity is swelling because he is the only regional leader who dares put into words what ordinary Egyptians and Saudis feel about Washington's policy in their region.

In Tehran, a common reading of December's US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) is that it stems from a desperate Bush coming to terms with the knowledge that no external pressure, whether political, economic, or military, can contain Iran.

According to this perspective, the NIE presented the Bush administration with a convenient, face-saving mechanism allowing it to abandon its attempts to marshal a fragmenting international alliance against Iran, and deferred responsibility for solving the Iranian nuclear conundrum to the next administration.

But despite enjoying the promise of Iran's direction, the Islamic Republic's culture of cronyism bothers Alireza, who says he largely leads a modest life and avoids northern Tehran's lavish parties.

He tells me that what propels him out of bed every morning is anticipation of the day when Washington recognizes Tehran as an ally in the region. "When the deal is finally signed between America and Iran, the deal that delineates the region's future, I want to be in that room – and not as a bystander, either. I want to have worked hard to bring it about," he said.

Iran is no longer the chaotic, postrevolutionary Khomeinist state of the 1980s. With reconstruction following the Iran-Iraq war largely completed, Iran's political elites are following a nationalist policy that aims at regional dominance. Despite the messianic rhetoric of the Khomeini era, Iran's foreign-policy concerns are pragmatic and largely similar to the ones that preoccupied the country during Iran's Shah era.

Iran's leaders, whether secular or theocratic, follow national-interest goals that aim to guarantee their economic and political dominance over geopolitical chokepoints such as the Strait of Hormuz, the Caspian Sea gateway into Central Asia, the eastern flanks of Afghanistan and Pakistani Balochistan, and the strategic Mediterranean-Mesopotamian corridor of Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.

These goals have been helped along by the American-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which removed anti-Tehran regimes that had stymied the expansion of Iranian economic and political influence.

During three years spent traveling throughout Iran, I witnessed long phalanxes of trucks transporting Iranian goods along the impeccable highways connecting the northeastern Iranian city of Mashad with Afghanistan's westernmost city, Herat, as well as at the two land-crossings into southern Iraq.

With Iranian influence growing throughout the region, and America faltering after so many foreign-policy debacles, Iran is hungrily eyeing the prize of regional dominance. Alireza could well be one of the officials who end up negotiating the future of the region with Washington.

Iason Athanasiadis is a 2008 Nieman fellow currently writing a book on the third generation of the Iranian Revolution titled, "Children of the Revolution: Khomeini's Unintended Legacy."

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