Magazine article USA TODAY

Iran Flexes Its Nuclear Muscle

Magazine article USA TODAY

Iran Flexes Its Nuclear Muscle

Article excerpt

TO MOST U.S. citizens, the image of Iran is one of religious zealotry punctuated by the nation's patronage of Hezbollah. To every American over the age of 45, the national nightmare of the Iranian hostage crisis remains indelibly etched in his or her memory. The episode remains perhaps the greatest humiliation of the U.S. since the fall of South Vietnam, a slow-motion nightmare played out nightly in the living rooms of our nation over the course of 14 months.

However, behind the ugly facade of the ayatollahs, Iran is a proud nation rich in heritage and culture. With a population of 77,000,000, Iran boasts a history spanning thousands of years, including some of the greatest empires the world ever has known. For the average Iranian on the streets of Tehran, the goals and aspirations of life look and sound more like the American Dream than the Sharia-inspired vision of the mullahs.

For many Iranians, reestablishing the nation's past glory and rightful influence over their region is a prime motivation. At the core of this world view is a centuries-old Persian ethnic identity. Reinforcing this distinct ethnicity is Iran's role as the steward of Shia Islam, a minority sect within the Muslim world. These factors set the nation apart from--and often at odds with--its brethren in the Middle East.

Iran dreams of elevating its status both in the Middle East and the world. The dream includes establishing Iran as the regional power and gaining the recognition and respect of the West. This dream and the history behind it transcends the religious theocracy that currently dictates the politics of Iran.

To realize this dream, the mullahs who rule Iran under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei exercise complete control over the foreign policy of the nation and its military. That foreign policy is driven by a foundation of clear principles: the defense and advancement of Shia Islam; advancement of Iranian regional hegemony; degradation of outside, or colonial, power; and a hatred of Zionism.

Hostility toward Israel is the facet of Iranian foreign policy that most widely is known and understood in the West. This opposition to the Jewish state brings Iran into alignment with most of its Middle East neighbors, and it happens to be the face of Iran upon which the West is most fixated but, in reality, it only is a minor facet of the country's external policies. Far more important to understanding Iran is understanding its distinct Persian ethnicity and its dominant Shia beliefs. These two major facets bring Iran into conflict with most of its neighbors.

Of the roughly 1,700,000,000 Muslims in the world, about 15% are Shia and the rest are Sunni. Iran is about 95% Shia, the only country in the world with such a Shia preponderance. This Shia domination, combined with the historic persecution of Shia believers at the hands of Sunnis, has resulted in Tehran assuming the role of guardians of Shia Islam. This historic tension with the balance of the Muslim world combined with its Persian cultural and ethnic identity--which is distinct from its Arab, Punjabi, and Pashtun neighbors--provides the backdrop for Iran's compulsive drive to dominate the Middle East.

From the internal perspective of Iran, the country is surrounded by neighbors who seek to thwart its ambitions. To the east, Sunni Pakistan is a poor nation but has a population of 180,000,000 and a sizable military. Further east, India looms as a regional giant. To the south, Saudi Arabia serves as the guardian and promoter of Sunni Islam. The Saudi Kingdom has a population of only 28,000,000, but sits on vast oil wealth and is protected by the shield of U.S. military might. Throughout the Persian Gulf--essentially Iran's backyard pool--the military of the U.S. resides in force, threatening Iran at every turn. To the west, Iraq has become a battleground of Sunni-Shia strife, with the power of Sunni Al Qaeda growing by the day. …

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