The West considers it to be one of the great security threats of our time, but there is arguably no nation in the world more misunderstood than Iran.
Former US President George W Bush can be thanked for much of that, particularly after he labelled Iran one of three countries in an "axis of evil" that sponsor international terrorism — along with North Korea and Iraq.
Over the past eight years, the United States and Israel have waged a covert war — and a not so covert war of words — against Iran.
Yet Iran has been a rogue state in Western eyes since well before Bush came to power.
It was not always so. Iran was considered a major Western bulwark in the region under its former Shah, or King, Reza Pahlavi. But since the Shah was ousted by a popular uprising in 1979 and the country transformed into a theocracy, Iran has been economically and diplomatically isolated as a pariah state.
Iran is the bastion of Shia-Islam, the smaller mainstream branch of the Muslim faith that considers Ali — one of the founding members of the religion — to be the rightful successor to the Prophet Mohammad. The majority of Muslims, and Arabs in the Middle East and Africa, are Sunni. Sunni Muslims do not place the same status on Ali and his successors as do Shia Muslims, leading to significant theological diversions between the two sects. Iranians are ethnically different too — most are Persians, although the country has sizeable Kurdish, Balochi, Arab and other ethnic communities.
That has historically lead to antagonism with its neighbouring Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Jordan, all of whom, save for Syria, are heavily pro-American.
The most topical aspect of Iran of late has been its nuclear energy program and whether it is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Last Thursday the International Atomic Energy Agency issued its 16th consecutive report concluding that Iran had not in fact "weaponised" its nuclear energy program — prompting the Iranian Ambassador to demand that the Agency stop submitting "repetitious" reports that added no major new information. Yesterday Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, declared that Iran had enriched enough uranium to build an atomic bomb, although Defence Secretary Robert Gates was quick to emphasise that it still lacked the ability to build a nuclear arsenal rapidly.
The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran has been used as fodder for much fear mongering. Current US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton threatened to "totally obliterate" Iran if it were to launch a nuclear attack on Israel during her bid for the presidency last year. Similar statements have been made in Israel: The Guardian reported last year that former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert had met secretly with Bush to seek support for an attack on Iran if it persisted with its nuclear enrichment program. Bush reportedly indicated that he would not support the strike.
Overlooked in the recent obsession with Iran’s nuclear energy program is that it started well before the country became an Islamic state. In fact the United States, Britain and other Western nations actually helped Iran develop a nuclear capacity before the Islamic revolution of 1979.
Before 1979, the country was ruled by Shah Reza Pahlavi who was himself installed, for the second time, with American and British support after they engineered a coup in 1953 against the democratically elected government of president Mohammad Mossadegh. Reza Pahlavi had earlier in 1941 succeeded his father Reza Khan as Shah when the latter was forced to abdicate under pressure from Britain and the former Soviet Union. They doubted Reza Khan’s loyalties at a time when Nazi Germany appeared set to win the European conflict.
Despite the upheavals of the last three decades, Iran remains a key regional player. Geography partly explains this. Iran sits in a vital position between the Arab states to the west and south, and Central and South Asia to the north and east.
Moreover, much of the world’s fossil fuels are shipped out of the Arabian Peninsula from ports that are immediately adjacent to the southern Iranian coast. This makes them easy targets for an Iranian reprisal in the event of an attack by the US or Israel. It also makes Iran a key transport hub for a resource-hungry region, especially for China, India and Russia.
Although Western nations have effectively boycotted Iran over its nuclear energy program, China and Russia have developed active trading relations with the country — US$25 billion and US$3.7 billion last year respectively.
Iran is likely to get a further boost from full membership to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a network of Central Asian players including Russia, China and the Central Asian countries, which it may soon gain. Iran currently has observer status along with India and Pakistan.
The USA’s disastrous invasion of neighbouring Iraq has also helped Iran’s regional clout. The brutal invasion and occupation, and the politicking that saw the establishment of a regime favourable to the United States, gave rise to local Shia Muslim political groups understandably sympathetic to Tehran.
Even the West has slowly come to appreciate Iran’s importance in the region: the United States and NATO have been in frequent talks with the Iranians with respect to Afghanistan. Those discussions have become more active recently as supply routes through Pakistan have been increasingly interrupted by Taliban attacks.
Although he continues to be the Supreme Council’s favourite, current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s popularity has dipped over the past few years. His rival — and the man he defeated in elections nearly eight years ago — the relatively more moderate Mohammad Khatami, has been lobbying hard for re-election. Under his presidency between 1997 and 2001, Khatami tried to improve relations with the West and avoid the hard rhetoric often employed by Ahmadinejad that feeds our worst nightmares about Iran and other majority-Muslim states.
Whether he will gain enough support to win the June presidential elections, however, is questionable because Iran remains firmly within the grasp of its religious leaders.
For his part, US President Barack Obama has expressed a willingness to commence negotiations with Iran, although he was recently warned by Iran’s UN Ambassador to stop employing the inflammatory rhetoric of the former Bush administration. Negotiations between the two countries may even have begun in secret, especially given the critical crisis of NATO supplies for Afghanistan.
That may well see Iran eventually coming out of the long bitter cold of Western isolation. But, even if relations improve, there will be much ground to cover.
This article has been edited.