Thirteen months after President Bush called Iran part of an “axis of evil,” and on the eve of a possible U.S.-led war against Tehran’s similarly vilified neighbor, Iraq, the Iranian government has quietly weighed its reputation as an international pariah against America’s superpower might. The Islamic theocracy’s conclusion, analysts and sources say, is that U.S. plans to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein should be viewed as an opportunity rather than a threat.
Confirmation of Iran's official policies is difficult due to the country’s own complex political battles, waged between popularly elected reformers and hard-line Islamic clerics who control most of Iran’s power structures.
Still, signs of a subtle shift, especially as U.S. military action in Iraq appears to be drawing near, are perceptible.
On the fifth floor of the Ministry for Culture and Islamic Guidance, a battery of translators surfs the Internet, analyzing articles in a dozen foreign languages and attempting, with the occasional help of a visiting reporter, to appreciate nuances in Bush administration policies. The behind-the-scenes scrutiny is a sharp departure from Iran’s usual vocal vilification of the United States.
Within weeks, U.S. troops could be deployed inside Iraq, and only miles from Baghdad’s borders with Iran, a country many here see as Bush’s next target for “regime change.”
Instead of lashing out at the “Great Satan” at its doorstep, however, the Iranian government has kept its anti-U.S. epithets in check.
The anti-American graffiti that once coated Tehran has largely been wiped clean, except for the colorfully caricatured old U.S. Embassy — a symbol of Iran’s Islamic Revolution that toppled the American-backed monarchy of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi more than two decades ago.
PASSAGE TO IRAQ
While Iran has vowed neutrality in any conflict with Iraq, its 906 mile-long border with Iraq makes some involvement inevitable.
In the past month, Iran’s stated impartiality has had more of an air of participation.
Tehran has granted dozens of foreign journalists rare visas and allowed them to transit through Iran to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq ahead of a conflict. Syria and Turkey, which also share borders with Iraq’s north, have refused similar access for reporters.
Iran is also making preparations to accept hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, readying camps along its frontier with Iraq. Relief officials say Iran would become a key player in caring for Iraqis displaced by war and would receive financial help.
And in the Persian Gulf, Iran has reversed its blind-eye policy toward Iraqi oil smugglers doing a brisk trade in illegal crude. Although not officially part of the international coalition that enforces the blockade, the Iranian navy also thwarts Saddam’s contraband.
In its most serious engagement ahead of a war with Iraq, Iran has agreed to help the United States in search-and-rescue operations for U.S. pilots. The deal was worked out in a secret dialogue between Tehran and Washington last month.
It was a rare moment of diplomacy involving the two nations. Iran and the United States severed official ties after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, during which Revolutionary Guards stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. In 1995, the United States added Iran to its list of terrorist-sponsoring nations because of Iran’s support for anti-Israel and anti-American Hizbollah militants in southern Lebanon.
Analysts say Iran’s readiness to participate in the periphery of a U.S. war on its borders demonstrates the Islamic republic’s practical approach to the Bush administration’s policy in the region.
“It’s called active neutrality,” said Hermidas Bavand, an international relations professor and a former Foreign Ministry official in the shah and Islamic governments. “By accommodating U.S. military engagement in Iraq, the expectation is that [the war] could be used as a sort of breakthrough as far as the relationship between Iran and the United States is concerned.”
Iranians are no friends of Saddam Hussein, whose 1980 invasion of Iran sparked a bloody war that ended 10 years later with a million troops and civilians dead on both sides.
After being lumped together with Iraq — and North Korea — in Bush’s “axis of evil” speech last year, the political dexterity of Iran’s leaders has been seriously challenged, said Bavand. He said Iran’s cooperation with the United States could be the Islamic theocracy’s ticket off Bush’s black list.
“Certain circles in Iran believed that a controlled Saddam is better than any other alternative. But common sense shows that the removal of Saddam would serve Iranian national interests,” said Bavand.
“The choice is conflict or cooperation,” said Morad Vaisi, a Tehran-based expert in Iran-Iraq relations.
COOPERATION AND PAYBACK
In practical terms, U.S. officials say they are impressed with Iran’s behavior since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. The Iranian government says it has arrested hundreds of al-Qaida fighters who strayed into Iran after the war in Afghanistan.
But Iran’s cooperation in the region comes with a price tag.
An Iraqi opposition official in Tehran, where a half-dozen anti-Saddam groups operate with the Iranian government’s blessing and U.S. financial support, admitted Iranian officials have asked him to put in a “few good words” about them during his meetings with State Department officials.
If Iran succeeds in winning assurances from the United States that it is not next for “regime change,” Tehran’s ability to keep Islamic fervor in check during a conflict with Iraq will be crucial to America’s attempts to stabilize region after a war.
Iran is also looking to play a larger role in post-war Iraq than it did in post-war Afghanistan. Extending its authority into Iraq may be easier, because Iran identifies strongly with Iraq’s majority Shiite Muslim population, long oppressed by Saddam’s Sunni regime.
The road to Iranian-American reconciliation has not been smooth, as evidenced by a visit to Tehran earlier this month by Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri. Sabri’s unannounced meetings with the Iranian president and foreign minister, analyst Vaisi says, were designed to remind Washington that Iran is “ready to play all its cards, even if it doesn’t like the hand it’s dealt.”
“In international relations, every threat has an opportunity and every opportunity has a threat,” Vaisi said. “The test is for Iran and the United States to manage and control the challenges so the elimination of Saddam Hussein will be an opportunity for both of us.”
(MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in Iran.)