ON THE CASPIAN SEA
Below the platform of Iran's Meghdad oil rig, the late-winter swells of the Caspian Sea churn toward a bleak north coast.
A length of pipe is added to the drilling column, so the whole platform shakes as oil workers drive it into the seabed with a large engine.
Iranian oil workers speak of this exploratory rig with pride, because the expertise is all-Iranian, and because they know that it is part of a larger game plan by Iran for regional influence.
Situated near 70 percent of the world's oil and gas reserves, Iran is making the most of its strategic location, expanding its role from the Persian Gulf to Central Asia.
Through pipeline links connecting the Caspian with the Persian Gulf, new trade routes tracing the ancient Silk Road from Asia to Europe, and efforts to mediate in neighboring conflicts, Iran is trying to rejuvenate the historic role that ancient Persia once had as an "indispensable" nation.
Analysts note that first-world pretensions have made Iran - despite strong American allegations of state terrorism and destabilizing neighbors - a crucial player in a troubled region.
But Western diplomats say such strategic notions are "overrated" by Iranians.
Such thinking is often a product of a "Persian arrogance that sees Iran as the center of the universe," says one Western diplomat.
"It is a fact of life that Iran has always been strategically important," said an Iranian analyst with close ties to the Islamic regime. "Iran is emerging again as a power in the region, and will exert strong political influence," he says.
Islamic leaders, or mullahs, are building Iran's military and economic profile, but they are wary of recent lessons. Russia's military might, for example, is seen to be limited by a collapsing economy. And Japan's economic prowess is far from matched by its military weakness.
Iran can be strong in both, Iranians say, and it is increasingly wielding its clout across the region.
"Iran has a very significant strategic value, and it is taking advantage of that," the analyst says.
The American policy of "dual containment" of Iran and Iraq, formulated in 1993, is designed to counter such an expansion of Iranian influence. It accuses Tehran of seeking nuclear bombs, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, and of sponsoring terrorism.
US officials say that Iran has tripled the number of missiles on its Gulf coast in the past two years, and by fitting Chinese cruise missiles onto patrol boats is more capable of shutting down the Gulf shipping lanes that are crucial for the flow of oil to the West.
But the 20,000 US troops deployed in allied Gulf Arab sheikhdoms - which almost universally fear Iran as a malevolent bully bent on exporting its Islamic revolution - can do little to prevent Iran from making friends elsewhere.
The threat of US sanctions against those who invest more than $40 million in Iran's energy sector, for example, did little to deter NATO-ally Turkey from concluding a $20 billion natural gas deal last year.
And a new rail link Turkmenistan is expected to reopen the ancient Silk Road. In anticipation of a trade boom, Iranians are building a 600-room hotel and an airport at the border.
That route - already more than 2,000 years old and active with camel caravans laden with spices until the 16th century - connects Central Asia and China to Europe.
Much of the region's oil and gas wealth - and Iran - lies in between. Just last year Kazakstan signed a deal in which Kazak oil is supplied to Iran across the Caspian.
In exchange, Iran exports an equivalent amount from its refineries on the Persian Gulf and returns cash from the sale to the Kazaks.
The Clinton administration is so worried about these ties that the US has reportedly put forward the idea to Turkey of bypassing Iran altogether by building a new pipeline across the Caucasus that would pass beneath the Caspian Sea.
Though such a project would be a costly way of avoiding Iran, the US - along with Israeli political and financial support - has said it would help fund it.
Iran's gas line to Turkey also worries Russia, which views the plan as undermining Russia's huge gas market in Europe. But it also is anxious about Iran opening up former Soviet republics to the south.
Already Ukraine has tried to cultivate ties with Iran to lessen its dependency on Russian oil and gas.
Still, Iran has been careful not to anger Russia. It has deliberately - and surprisingly, critics say - kept out of the conflict in Chechnya, where Muslim Chechens have fought Moscow's rule.
But Iran has bigger strategic interests at heart: It now buys the bulk of its weapons from Russian arms dealers, which reportedly include sensitive parts for long-range ballistic missiles.
And despite pressure from Washington to sever all ties with Iran, Russia is finishing work on a nuclear reactor at Beshahr, a few miles inland from the Caspian shoreline.
In Tehran, this shift toward Russia and China is seen as a direct result of the US policy of isolating Iran. During a visit to Tehran in December, then-Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Iranian officials complained that the US military presence in the Gulf was "incompatible with peace and stability."
"Iran has always been in a troubled neighborhood," says Said Hadjarian, a political analyst at the University of Tehran.
"How could it be hostile to its neighbors?"
That attitude has led to one new approach, as Iran has tried to cast itself as a regional peacemaker. Tehran has hosted peace talks for feuding Kurdish leaders from northern Iran - much to the chagrin of Washington - and factions from civil wars in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Iran also hosts more than 1.5 million Afghan refugees alone.
But benevolent influence is spread in other ways: Iran pays for mosque building in Central Asia, and the best library in the Azerbaijan capital, Baku - itself likely site of the next oil boom - is Iranian.
"It is natural for Iran to fight against any attempt to isolate it," says Javad Zarif, the deputy foreign minister. "It is in our interest to see calm and stability in the region, because uncertainty causes tension."
"There is tremendous potential in the region and it needs cooperation, not competition," he says.
Still, Iran seems already to be winning that competition, despite obstacles from the West.
"It is difficult to see any future scenario in which Iran doesn't dominate the region, either as a threat or a power," says a Western diplomat. "The alternative is perpetual conflict."
Though European nations have been less hard on Iran with their policy of "critical dialogue," many Iranians ultimately look to the United States as a kindred spirit. They hope that Iran will soon be too important for the world's one remaining superpower to ignore.
"It is only a question of time" before America and Iran are close again, says one US-educated Iranian.
"In political science we were taught that no friend is forever, and no enemy is forever. Only the mutual interest is forever."
Why Iran sees Itself as 'Indispensable'
* Sits at the regional nexus of 70 percent of the world's known oil and gas reserves.
* Is alone in directly linking the oil and gas of the Caspian Sea and Central Asia with the Persian Gulf.
* Expects a trade boom from reopening East-West trade routes, including the ancient Silk Road from China.
* Signed a $20-billion gas deal with NATO ally Turkey last year - in defiance of US sanctions.
* Has largest and most-feared conventional military force in the region, prompting a US policy of "containment."
* Is increasingly accepted as a mediator in neighboring conflicts (Afghanistan, Iraqi Kurd areas, and Tajikistan).