Iran's Quest for Superpower Status

Since 1973 and the first oil shock, the center of gravity of Middle Eastern politics has been gradually shifting—from the eastern Mediterranean and the Arab-Israeli conflict toward the Persian Gulf and Iran. That process was accelerated in 1979 by the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which dramatically reduced the likelihood of another Arab-Israeli war, and the nearly simultaneous climax of the Iranian revolution, which replaced the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi with a radical theocratic regime under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Iran has long harbored ambitions to become the superpower of the Persian Gulf. That prospect is not as improbable today as in the past. In recent years, despite the severe constraints imposed by a chaotic internal situation, Iran has managed a complex and dangerous set of international relationships with boldness, sangfroid and a considerable measure of success.

Americans are prone to evaluate developments in Tehran from the perspective of U.S. concerns, particularly after the revelation of U.S. arms sales. The world as seen from Tehran, however, constitutes sets of interlocking circles of threats and interests in which the United States is important but far from paramount.

The most important circle of attention is the constantly shifting balance of power within the revolution itself. Second, and only slightly less important, is the war with Iraq. Every aspect of the war has both practical and ideological implications for the survival of the regime; it is the object of the most intense controversy and debate. Third is oil policy—production, pricing and distribution—which is intimately associated with Iran’s role in OPEC. For the most part, oil policy has not been a subject of political contention. Responsibility for management of the petroleum industry has been delegated to technicians who are essentially nonpolitical and nonideological. Iranian strategy in OPEC is apparently set by a small group of technocrats and political leaders at the very top of the power structure whose decisions, at least to date, have not been subject to serious public debate.

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