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Regional Outlook : Iran Plots While Neighbors Fight : By playing all sides against the middle, Tehran is hoping to reclaim a prominent role for Old Persia in the New Persian Gulf.


WASHINGTON — Ostracized since its 1979 revolution, pulverized for eight years during the last Gulf War and sidelined even in the region named after it during the latest Persian Gulf conflict, the Islamic Republic of Iran is now attempting a comeback.

Or so it appears in piecing together the unraveling clues in perhaps the Gulf War's biggest mystery to date: What are the Iranians up to?

First, somewhere around 100 Iraqi warplanes and civilian aircraft land in Iran, a bitter and longstanding rival. Tehran acts astonished and indignantly declares it will impound the planes. Its neutrality will not be undermined!

Then, Iran opens a bank account for public donations to help Iraqi civilians victimized by the U.S.-led coalition's bombardment; foodstuffs and medicine are collected to ship to Baghdad. Leading mullahs pledge to fight alongside Iraq if Israel enters the war.

Next, prominent officials from Iraq, Europe, North Africa and the Arabian peninsula arrive in Tehran--not exactly a hotbed of diplomacy over the past 12 years--to talk about Persian Gulf peace.

And finally, on Monday, Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani says he's ready to meet Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and talk to the United States in an effort to mediate an end to the war.

Once again, the Iranians--as has been their way under both monarchs and mullahs--are crafting a crisis for their own gain. This time, Tehran is playing all sides to ensure it ends up the winner of a game in which it hasn't even been a player.

"What Iranians want from this war is a new Gulf order," said R. K. Ramazani, an Iran expert at the University of Virginia. "This is the way to assert themselves and their role in the Gulf in the future."

With a proud history reaching back to the ancient Persian empire and nearly double the population of the rest of the Gulf states combined, Iran feels it has a strong claim to regional leadership.

"The great irony is that the United States spent the better part of the 1980s striving to prevent Iranian dominance in the Persian Gulf, but the outcome of this war is transparently likely to produce just that result," added Augustus Richard Norton of the International Peace Academy in New York.

"The Persian Gulf may, as a result of these events, indeed become the Persians' gulf," Norton said.

The shape of that "new Gulf order" reflects a fundamental policy shift in the Islamic Republic since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the rise of President Rafsanjani.

It's not a total flip-flop. At least rhetorically, Iraqi President Hussein is still "the butcher of Baghdad." Israel remains "the Zionist enemy." And the United States is still "the Great Satan."

But Tehran's tone has certainly changed. "If there is hope for the salvation of the Iraqi nation, why shouldn't I meet Saddam?" Rafsanjani asked rhetorically at a Monday news conference in the Iranian capital. And he added that contacts with the United States--which broke diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980--could go through the Swiss embassy, which handles American interests in Tehran.

Separated from the regions they bridge--the Middle East and South Asia--by two great mountain ranges and three bodies of water, the Persians have always been a society and culture unto themselves. Their historic suspicion of outsiders and sense of superiority are unlikely to disappear.

But the need to survive after their own debilitating, 1980-88 war with Iraq, combined with the current rapid world changes are spawning a new realism.

In contrast to the early days of the revolution, when Iran cultivated Shiite extremism in Iraq and called for another Islamic republic in Baghdad, the mullahs are now cautioning against the dismemberment of their powerful neighbor. Turkey was recently warned against meddling in Iraq's Kurdish north after the war.

"They want to see Iraq weakened but not destroyed," explained Shaul Bakhash, author of "The Reign of the Ayatollahs" and a history professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "One might have thought they'd be eager to gain access to the Shiite holy places at Karbala (in Iraq), but they in fact don't welcome a free-for-all for parts of Iraq."

Iran's behavior today has its roots in policy shifts that began at the end of the last Gulf War. "After the 1988 cease-fire, Rafsanjani said the government had even worried that if Iran had succeeded in taking Baghdad, the mullahs were unsure of what they would do with Iraq. It's such a difficult country to rule," Bakhash said.

Indeed, instead of propagating Islamic revolution in Muslim countries, Iran is now seeking coexistence with the conservative Gulf sheikdoms. Albeit reluctantly, that even includes Saudi Arabia, whose monarchy was once called "illegitimate" by Tehran.

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