IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Inside Iran, a nation conflicted

NBC’s Jim Maceda reports from inside Iran on that country’s conflicting messages to the West.
/ Source: NBC News

Iran is caught between opposing forces — both inside and outside its territory. Nothing has made that clearer than recent statements by its defense minister, Ali Shamkhani. First came a warning that Iran would “confront” any U.S. planes that violate Iranian air space in the course of pursuing its war on terror. But later he admitted what was already known in military intelligence circles: Iran has bankrolled militias fighting the Taliban inside Afghanistan for years. One statement threatened the United States; the other served U.S. interests. It sounds like a contradiction, but in fact, it’s consistent: Iran’s response to President Bush’s challenge, “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists,” is: “We are neither with you, nor with them.”

As Iran struggles to become a regional power, it is being tugged in several directions. At home, the nation’s moderate president wants to embrace reform, but its conservative clergy clings to power by demonizing the United States.

Abroad, the United States wants Iran’s cooperation. But Iran is saying: “We are not Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan. We will not negotiate with our principles.”

After the terrorist attacks in the United States, there was an initial excitement, felt mostly in Washington, that Tehran was signaling a desire to re-examine the two nations’ stormy relationship. But now the government here seems to have concluded that the gap between the nations is still too large to bridge.

Iran now says it will only participate in an international coalition to fight terrorism if it works under a U.N. umbrella, and if America doesn’t “act like a bully.” Translated, that means Iran rejects the notion of a massive air or ground attack on Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, even though the militant regime nearly triggered a war with Iran in 1998, is responsible for several terrorist attacks inside Iran and once killed a group of Iranian diplomats in western Afghanistan.

The apparent contradiction has roots in Iran’s sense of its own “skin.” Iran prides itself on leading Islam into the 21st century. Therefore, it cannot allow itself to be dragged into a war against Muslims — no matter how repulsive they might be — especially on the side of America, the former symbol of all things evil in post-revolutionary Iran.

Iran has amassed some 20,000 troops along its border with Afghanistan, fearing an influx or refugees and, worse, a stream of incognito Taliban soldiers. Iran’s navy is also monitoring the movements of dozens of U.S. and British warships off its shores.

Tehran also is generating significant diplomatic energy behind the scenes, particularly among Arab and gulf allies. But Iran is not — and will not — provide the smallest amount of military aid to the so-called coalition against terrorism. Indeed, it says it will attack U.S. and allied planes, if need be.

Is this the same Iran that sent an unprecedented message of condolence to the people of New York and Washington — the first official government-to-government correspondence in 22 years?

The simplest answer is that there are two Irans today. One, forward-thinking, is ready to make peace with America if its former enemy will sit down and resolve a few lingering grievances: U.S. economic sanctions, frozen Iranian assets and the like. The other, mired in the past, can only survive if it opposes any real progress. Unfortunately for America, while the other Iran dreams, it is this conservative Iran that rules.

InsertArt(1782181)But there is some hope. After news of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks spread to Tehran, hundreds of Iranians, students, merchants and housewives joined in a candlelight vigil in a downtown square. Many were crying. Three weeks later, I am still approached by ordinary Iranians, in restaurants, Internet cafes and on the street, telling me how sorry they are, and how worried they are about the “American war” that is about to begin, just next door.

This solicitude illustrates Iran’s difficult posture. The country wants to join the community of nations. But at the same time it fears, deep down, what most of Iran’s 30 million people under the age of 21 were taught in Islamic schools: That America really has only one plan — world domination.

NBC’s Jim Maceda is on assignment in Tehran.