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Iran: Tensions Rise As Tehran Expands Regional Influence

Alex Vatanka says Tehran wants to be the regional power in the long term (RFE/RL) Alex Vatanka, a Washington-based expert for Jane's Information Group, talks with RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz about rising tensions between Iran and the United States and its allies. Vatanka sees recent Iranian activities in the region as a reaction to outdated U.S. foreign policies as well as setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan that have allowed Tehran to expand its influence and leverage.

RFE/RL: Looking at Iran's alleged involvement in recent violence from the Middle East to Afghanistan, is it accurate to say that confrontation between Iran and the United States is on the rise?

Alex Vatanka: There is no doubt that the recent months have witnessed an escalation in terms of U.S. pressure and allegations against Iranian interventions in different arenas -- primarily, obviously, Iraq. But also, with allegations of Iran supplying militants with weapons in Afghanistan.

Now we have, in the last week, witnessed the use of force by what is probably Iran's biggest ally in the Middle East -- Hizballah in Lebanon -- against the Western-backed Lebanese Prime Minister [Fuad] Siniora. We have had in the last year or so the issue of Arab concerns in terms of the rise of Iranian influence among Sunnis -- which is a relatively novel phenomena -- in particular, in the Gaza Strip where Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are concerned that Iranian influence is on the rise. And that they haven't been able to tackle that.

So you've got a mixture of U.S. and pro-U.S. Arab states having concerns in terms of what Iran is up to. And the pressure in recent months, in particular, has been escalating. But this is really what Iran wants: to be the regional power long-term. And the question then is whether the U.S. is ready to accommodate Iran on that.

RFE/RL: It hardly seems feasible to talk about Washington accommodating Tehran when the current U.S. foreign policy prohibits any direct, formal diplomatic relations with Iran. Are you suggesting that Washington needs to review its overall policy on formal diplomatic contacts with Tehran?

Vatanka: The United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since 1980, which was a product of the [Tehran] hostage crisis. But that was 1980, almost 30 years ago. The U.S. policy remains pretty much the same -- non-relations, hostile relations -- despite the fact that in March 2003 something giant happened on the regional stage: the invasion [of Iraq] and the downfall of Saddam Hussein's regime. I think the U.S. foreign policy on Iran is not in any way reflecting that change in March 2003.

What people are saying in Washington -- those who are advocating for at least negotiations -- [is to] face them. See what they are saying. Tell them how you feel. And don't use the Swiss Embassy in Washington or Tehran for dialogue when you have 165,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and 42,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan -- and you have Iran, the biggest Middle East state in the region -- right between the two scenarios.

The fact that the U.S. is so much more involved on the ground means that whatever policy was relevant in 1980 can no longer be relevant. Or at least, the events of March 2003 and the downfall of Saddam Hussein have to be reflected in policy. And right now, the argument is that [these events] are not [reflected in U.S. foreign policy.] That [the current U.S. policy on Iran] is a continuation of an outdated policy.

RFE/RL: If we focus on just one arena -- let's say Iraq -- then how much of this growing confrontation between Iran and the United States is real and what is illusion?

Vatanka: On the part of the U.S., it is an illusion to think that Iran will not do its best to influence events in Iraq and try to turn events and shape realities in a way that is going to be in its favor. The U.S., in turn, has to turn around and say: "We understand you have some genuine security concerns about Iraq given your history. But that doesn't mean you are going to sit there at a cabinet level in Baghdad and have a say over Iraqi affairs, or try to shape events in Iraq by supporting special groups." I think that's where the debate is right now. What is it that Iran would need to satisfy its needs, the way it sees it? And what is the U.S. government willing to allow Iraqi partners to give to Iran in a bargaining moment?

RFE/RL: What about Arab countries in the region that you mentioned -- Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example? Do they have any input on the issue of Iran becoming, in the long run, the Middle East's main regional power?

Vatanka: The Iranians are extremely assertive in the sense that they are saying that the power game in the Middle East currently does not have more than two players -- namely, Iran and the United States. They are totally ignoring the fact that there are Arab states in the arena who might want to have a say in the game -- who might want to have an input in terms of where the region is going. This is a major shift from where Iran was in, say, May 2003, when the Iranians desperately were trying to get some sort of grand bargain with the United States. When they witnessed the decimation of the Iraqi military by the U.S. armed forces, they panicked. They provided what has been labeled a "grand bargain." But events since then have, in the main, worked in Iran's favor. The Iranians have witnessed the situation not work out in favor of the United States, particularly in Iraq.

RFE/RL: Recent editorials in newspapers controlled by the Iranian regime suggest that the United States is too bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan to launch military strikes into Iran over its controversial nuclear program or its alleged manipulations in nearby countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Lebanon. Is this view contributing to confrontation with Washington by emboldening Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad?

Vatanka: I would say this is one particular line of thinking in Iran. And it would be a mistake to think that the regime which is hanging on to power is unanimous in its views when it comes to how to tackle the United States. If you read those statements, and read between the lines and listen to what is being said quietly, you will hear that there is a significant debate inside Iran about the dangers of Iran overplaying its hand in arenas like Iraq. And if the retaliation comes, how hard would that retaliation be? And would the regime be able to withstand it?

The hard-liners in Iran believe that there will be no retaliation -- that there is no "stick," because the United States, they say, is involved in a quagmire in Iraq and is not in a position to come after them. So they are saying, "Just play it well and you will get the best sort of concessions." But there are other positions in Iran. There are moderate voices who are not happy with the style and, very often, the substance of [Iran's] present foreign-policy discourse.