Iran: The Country Next Door

Is Iran The Next Nuclear Threat?

When most Americans think of Iran, they remember those 1979 pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution and the seizure of 52 American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

Even today, for Iran, America is still officially the Great Satan. And to the United States, Iran is officially in the Axis of Evil.

When Saddam developed a nuclear bomb, we responded with total war. How do we respond if Iran does the same? Morley Safer reports from Iran.

"A lot will depend upon how the Iranian regime itself evolves after this war with Iraq -- as to what sort of pressures we should put on them vis-a-vis the nuclear weapon," says Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional strategic programs at the Nixon Center.

Kemp believes that Iran will feel dangerously isolated after the U.S. war with Iraq is over.

"We will be not only a major presence in Iraq," he says. "We will be in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Oman. We're all around them, and we're encircling them with the most extraordinary military power the world has ever seen assembled. They are very nervous about this."

And they have been ever since President Bush's first State of the Union. In his speech, Mr. Bush said: "States like these and their terrorist allies...threaten the peace of the world."

Kamal Kharazzi, Iran's foreign minister, says his nation's inclusion in the Axis of Evil was misguided. He admits Iran supports groups like Hezbollah, but says terrorism is in the eye of the beholder – even in the case of suicide bombers.

"They do not have any other choice. You should put yourself in their place. You should look at the world through their eyes and understand their mindset," says Kharazzi. "They are desperate people. They are hopeless people. It's not a question of support or non-support. It's a question of realities."

One reality that is seared into the Iranian psyche is the brutal eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s. Reminders are everywhere in Tehran. In the city's hospitals, the realities of Saddam Hussein's chemical attacks are everywhere in the men who returned home blinded, lungs burned, tethered for life to respirators.

Victims stare out from every street corner. They are buried by the tens of thousands in cemeteries that have become places of pilgrimage in a country that vows never again to be a victim.

"They're developing nuclear technology that is for peaceful purposes. But overnight [this] could be shifted to bomb production," says Kemp.

"They were gassed for years by Saddam Hussein. We said nothing. The international community said nothing," says Kemp. "In fact, we imposed a very stringent arms embargo on Iran at the same time we were helping Iraq re-arm, and they have not forgiven us for that."

Nevertheless, beyond the obvious state propaganda, there are no overt signs of anti-Americanism.

Iran today is a patchwork of contradictions. Ultimate power lies with a so-called supreme leader and his coterie of hard-line mullahs.

Yet Iran's president, Mohammed Khatami, won landslide victories in democratic elections on a platform of reforms that the mullahs oppose. It's a government at war with itself.

The result: stagnation and a welter of social problems. Streets are filled with runaway children. There's an epidemic of drug addiction, depression and suicide. Prostitution is rampant.

This is hardly the paradise that the revolution promised. "Iran is a messy, confused, semi-democratic, semi-authoritarian Islamic country that is struggling to find its ways," says Kemp.

But is Iran confused, muddled and potentially very powerful?

Inevitably powerful, believes Kemp.

"Iran, if it sets its mind to it, could be a truly great power in the region. And what we have to hope is that we, the United States, have a good relationship with it when that date happens."

For that to happen, the social revolution that is taking place here must succeed. Sixty percent of Iran's people are under 25, an exploding population connecting itself with the wider world.

Women are beginning to defiantly let the veils slip from their heads. And youth must be served with American style burgers and fries.

Time and time again, students have taken to the streets demanding freedom of the press, academic freedom and jobs.

Fariborz Raisdana, a leading dissident, has been relentless in his demands for immediate democratic reform.

"We have 4.2 million unemployed people. Nearly one million of them are university educated. You can't find jobs for them here. I'm sorry to tell that, but here is not Iraq, is not Pakistan, is not Afghanistan," says Raisdana. "The people are full of culture. They know many things. They are aware. They want real democracy. They want to participate. They want to build a future."

Raisdana, once a prominent scholar, has been punished for his opinions. He was thrown into jail, stripped of academic credentials and forbidden to teach. Despite that, he remains contemptuous of those who want reform to come at a measured pace.

"During the last 25 years, first they told us that it is revolution. Be cautious, be careful. We have problem with America. Be cautious, be careful,'" he says. "Now we are in a war. Be cautious, be careful. Now we are rebuilding the country. Be cautious, be careful. Now we are in reformism. Be cautious, be careful. I think we have to change our method."

President Khatami's method of caution and care has produced more frustration than reform. But his vice president, Mohammed Ali Abtahi, says it is the only method to use in order to avoid political extremes that could lead to further chaos.

"Yes, those have always been serious dangers," says Abtahi, who believes that Khatami stands between fascism and anarchy. "But steady reforms could keep us away from them."

Maybe we don't mean the same thing when we say democracy. Freedom of press, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, protection of minorities: these are not things that exist in Iran today.

"We don't think you should not compare us with Western democracies," says Abtahi. "You should compare Iran with our neighboring countries."

If Khatami had his way, would there be better relations?

"If he had more power -- that is to say if he controlled the intelligence services, the judiciary and the military forces, who are the three instruments that are responsible for most of the things we don't like -- then I'm certain that Khatami and the people around him would definitely want better relations with the United States, and eventually, I think, with Israel," says Kemp. "But they would talk to us at that point because they know what they are missing by not having a relationship with the world's number one superpower."

Is there now a genuine fear in Iran that somehow those troops now on Iran's border will start to threaten the leadership of this country?

"No, we do not have such a concern because we are a solid and a popular system," says Kharazzi. "But we are concerned about reshaping the whole region. That is the matter of concern, not only for Iran, but for whole region."

Of equal concern to the region, however, are Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"The real danger we have is that if Iran is allowed to get a nuclear weapon, then I think there's a very high probability that Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia will think about their own bomb," says Kemp.

"And then you'll have in this cauldron Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, India and Turkey. Nuclear weapon states? That's not the new world order we're looking for."
  • Rebecca Leung

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