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Mon, Nov. 18

Iran's leaders think their time has come

TEHRAN ­ Behind President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's defiant rhetoric lies a conviction that people here share widely: Iran is a rising power in the Middle East while the United States is in decline ­ and now is the moment for Iran to emerge as a regional superpower.

You hear versions of this cocky nationalism in almost every conversation. And when you look around this surprisingly modern metropolis of 12 million people, it's easy to think that Iran's time indeed may have come. The problem is that its national ambitions are wrapped today in the fanatical language of Ahmadinejad, who emerged from the hardest of this country's hardcore Islamic revolutionaries. He and his followers seem eager for the confrontation that lies ahead.

The situation in Iraq bolsters Iranian confidence in its test of wills against America. As the Iranians view it, the United States has stumbled into a pit from which it cannot escape easily. There is a disagreement here between pragmatists who see in America's troubles an opportunity to open a mutually beneficial dialogue with the Great Satan, and hard-liners who would rather let America suffer.

"Iran thinks in Iraq it has the upper hand ­ that is the view of the Iranian military and political establishment,'' says Kayhan Barzegar, a professor of international relations here who advises some members of the leadership on Iraq. He prepared a recent paper, "Iran's Security Interest in the New Iraq,'' for Iran's Expediency Council, which former President Hashemi Rafsanjani heads, and is the center point for the pragmatist faction. Barzegar says that it is precisely because America needs Iran's assistance that a dialogue between the two over Iraq makes sense.

"Iraq is the momentous moment, where the two countries can work with each other in tangible ways,'' argues Barzegar. Iran can play a decisive role not just because of its links with the Shiite-led government and militia groups, he says, but because of what he calls its "soft power'' as the dominant economic, political and cultural player in the region.

Iran officially embraced this idea of dialogue on Iraq early this year, in a statement from Ali Larijani, Iran's national security adviser. But the Bush administration pulled back, worried that talks with Tehran about Iraq would obstruct the administration's larger goal of containing the Iranian nuclear program. The failure of the initiative undercut the advocates of dialogue and emboldened the hard-liners.

A more nuanced, but equally tough view of Iran's "manifest destiny'' in the Middle East comes from Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of the Kayhan newspaper. He meets frequently with Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with whom he shares an interest in Persian poetry. Shariatmadari says America is in an impossible bind in Iraq: It has brought to power Islamic parties that are fundamentally opposed to America's interests. When Larijani announced in March that he was ready for talks about Iraq, Shariatmadari immediately countered with a critical editorial. Now, he says, Khamenei has made clear he opposes such negotiations.

How do Khamenei and the other ruling mullahs views Iran's role in the region? Shariatmadari answered thusly: "Big changes are on the way. People in the region have understood that the time for bullying and military attacks has passed.''

Take a stroll in Iran's old bazaar, for generations the heart of the city's business life, and you sense the public eagerness for Iran's resurgence. You hear many views about Ahmadinejad, including people who tell you frankly that they loathe him, but everyone seems to want a stronger Iran.

The trick for America and its allies is to somehow recognize Iran's ambitions to be a regional power without allowing the revolutionary leadership embodied by Ahmadinejad to destabilize the Middle East further. I'm a naturally optimistic person, but right now that looks to me like Mission Impossible.

(E-mail David Ignatiusat davidignatius@washpost. com)

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