RENE MONTAGNE, host:

Iran in the past few years has benefited from U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the price of oil. It's political and military influence is growing.

This week, NPR will examine Iran in the Middle East, how it sees itself and it's neighbors see it. Here's NPR's Mike Shuster with the view from inside Iran.

MIKE SHUSTER: Iran's natural destiny is to be the regional power in the Middle East. That's what many Iranians say about their nation and their culture. Just ask Hamid Zaheri, a former official in Iran's oil ministry.

Mr. HAMID ZAHERI (Former Official of Iran's Oil Ministry): This is country - it is already the superpower of this region. It has got the rightful position. There is no way to go back.

SHUSTER: A nation of 70 million, Iran is one of the largest oil exporters in the world. With its long coastline, good highways and railroad links to central Asia, it is a natural crossroads and trading partner. But there are drawbacks. It is a Persian state in a region dominated by Arabs and it is a Shiite Muslim nation surrounded for the most part by Sunni states.

Iranians have been talking about the destiny of their nation for years, but it took actions by the United States to help make its rise a reality. The U.S. removed the Taliban from power in Afghanistan and then ousted Saddam Hussein in Iraq - Iran's two most dangerous enemies, notes Augustus Norton, an expert on the Middle East at Boston University.

Dr. AUGUSTUS NORTON (Boston University): It's stunningly true that Iran has been the great geopolitical victor of American sacrifice and war.

SHUSTER: This is Qom, Iran's center of Shiite Islamic learning. In Qom, ayatollahs and their followers debate the fine points of Islam and help to formulate the policies of the Islamic Republic. Like many Iranian leaders, the clerics in Qom see Iran as under siege, the victim of hostility generated from near and far. Vali Beybi is spokesman for Qom's clerical establishment.

Mr. VALI BEYBI (Clerical Spokesman): (Through translator) There are lots of negative propaganda against the Islamic Republic. They are trying to deceive other Muslim nations against the Islamic Republic. But we believe that one day when Imam Mahdi will reappear to the people he will have all the countries of the world under his umbrella. It means that there would be Islamic law prevailing in the whole world

SHUSTER: This is the kind of talk that tends to worry Iran's neighbors, the notion that the Shiite 12th imam, Imam Mahdi, will reappear in the world to carry the Islamic revolution beyond the borders Iran.

This revolutionary zealotry began in the modern age with the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah and brought Ayatollah Khomeini's version of Islamic rule to power. But that was nothing new in Persian history.

(Soundbite of children playing)

SHUSTER: It is a scorching summer day in Esfahan. Children take to a fountain in the city center to cool themselves. Esfahan was the capital of Persia for 200 years under the Safavid dynasty. The Safavids, conquerors from eastern Turkey, brought Shiite Islam to Persia in the early 16th century. Since that time, Iran has tried to set itself apart and above its Sunni neighbors to the west and to the east, says Vali Nasr, author of "The Shia Revival."

Mr. VALI NASR (Author, "The Shia Revival"): The Iranian kings try to claim the leadership of the Muslim world. They see benefit in differentiating Iranian identity from that of the Ottomans and the Arab lands that they were ruling over. This was partly accomplished by the fact that Iranians have an Iranian culture and the Persian language, but partly by embracing a different branch of Islam, which would then really separate Iran from its Muslim neighbors to its west.

SHUSTER: But this separateness, this difference, has more often undermined Iran's claims to lead the Muslim world, a fact that Iran's early revolutionary leaders eventually learned, according to Augustus Norton.

Dr. NORTON: In the main, despite Iranian claims that this was, quote, "an Islamic revolution," unquote, many Sunni Muslims - most Sunni Muslims - rejected that claim.

SHUSTER: Many Iranians had their doubts as well. Politically, Iran is a deeply divided society, with conservatives and reformers constantly struggling for preeminence. Ethnic tensions have also had an impact on the Iranian state, says Gregory Gause, director of Middle East studies at the University of Vermont.

Mr. GREGORY GAUSE (Director of Middle East studies, University of Vermont): We tend to think of Iran as a national state, and it has developed that way. But the Iranian nationality itself is only about half of the population of Iran. You've got Arabs. You've got Turks. You've got Baluch. You've got a mix of tribal people.

SHUSTER: There is a great sensitivity among Iranians about the vulnerability of the state to regional separatism - the Arabs in oil-rich Khuzestan province, the Kurds and Azeris in Northwest Iran, restive Baluchistan province in the East, bordering Pakistan.

Sometimes Iran responds with territorial threats of its own. Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of the hard-line daily Kayhan, caused a stir recently with an editorial reviving the claim that Bahrain, the tiny Arab island nation across the Persian Gulf, was historically part of Iran.

Mr. HOSSEIN SHARIATMADARI (Editor, Kayhan): (Through translator) Most of Iranians and even most of the Bahrainis have got my own idea that I mentioned. Unfortunately, our government does not buy this idea.

SHUSTER: Iran's foreign minister was forced to travel to Bahrain to calm fears caused by the editorial. At the same time, articles appeared in the Iranian press of alleged Saudi Arabian claims on some of Iran's oil fields. These tensions with Iran's neighbors are growing after a long period when Iran's more liberal political leaders sought to improve relations with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states.

Aboard the tugboat Moharram in the harbor at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf, it is here at Bushehr the tensions about Iran's future comes into clearer focus. The local authorities are hard at work expanding Bushehr's port. Iran's only nuclear power plant is also under construction here, protected by early warning radar and anti-aircraft missiles and guns. If the nuclear crisis deepens, Iran will use ports like this to evade economic sanctions.

But Iran's economy is vulnerable. Gasoline rationing has been underway for two months, imposed to counter the waste of highly subsidized gasoline that is undermining the government finances, says Heydar Pourian, editor of the monthly magazine Iran Economics.

Mr. HEYDAR POURIAN (Editor, Iran Economics): We are already seeing some slowdown in the economy, which is partly because of government's decision-making, partly because of the threats of more sanctions by the U.N. and also the U.S.-led banking finance actions that have had impact on our economy, and some capital flight.

SHUSTER: The growth of Iran's economy is key to its emergence as a true regional power, but politics and regional tensions are linked to Iran's economic prospects, notes Ali Shams Ardekani, an economist and businessman.

Mr. ALI SHAMS ARDEKANI (Economist): We have to work very hard to achieve this level of economic activity, which means also we have to reduce, if possible, tension. We have to reduce the military expenditure of our neighbors. Iran is spending on military less than Turkey, less than Pakistan, less than Saudi Arabia, so we should invite the other people in the region to spend less on military and more on socioeconomic development.

SHUSTER: That will be difficult as long as Iran frightens its neighbors with the pursuit of nuclear technology, with talk of claims on neighboring territories, and rhetoric about an Islamic revolution that its neighbors long ago rejected.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: There's more on Iran at our Web site. Go there, you can find it at npr.org.

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