Iran takes wait-and-see stance on US Gulf moves. As tensions mount in the Gulf, the public's mood in Tehran is startlingly calm. But the message from Iran's leaders is clear - whatever the pressure from the West, they will not back down.
Speedboats race through the swells of the Gulf's blue-green waters, small cannons poised for attack in front, pennants boasting of martyrdom boldly waving in the rear. Suddenly, lightning flashes of fire from larger naval patrol boats blaze atop the waves, erupting in thick white clouds as they hit their target, a large freighter. Eventually, the hapless freighter crippled, naval troops storm the ship and triumphantly raise the Iranian flag. In the background, symphonic drums and cymbals echo the sounds of war. This dramatic sequence is a highlight of prime-time television in Tehran. No commentary is needed. Although Iran's recent naval maneuvers are over, the constant replay reinforces the message: Iran will not back down because of the deployment of US warships in the Gulf.
Yet television fare is one of the few signs of tension in Tehran, where many Iranians seem nonchalant, almost oblivious to the drama now being played out in the Gulf's sea lanes.
``After seven years of war with Iraq, when we've been under regular attack from air and land, we've been war-hardened,'' one Iranian analyst explains. ``This is just another threat, nothing really new. And we'll deal with it like we have all others.''
The Iranian public's seeming lack of alarm about potential confrontation with a superpower is a striking contrast for a correspondent just arrived from Washington. Traffic jams and complaints of rationed meat and petroleum, for example, are more common topics of conversation here than the war, which appears to have become accepted as a constant of Iranian life.
Diplomatic sources and Iranian analysts suggest that Iran wants to avoid escalation of the conflict. But, they say, Tehran's theocrats, reportedly more anxious than the public about the current Gulf standoff, feel they ultimately have little control over what happens.
Reflecting the Shiite sense of injustice and the post-revolution feeling of persecution by the outside world, Iran contends that it is not the aggressor, but the victim. And being on the defensive is seen as justifying any action that will preserve the state and the religion.
Claiming Iran's past strikes on Gulf tankers had only been retaliatory, parliamentary Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani charged yesterday that the West ``has surpassed all boundaries for creating tension in the region'' by dispatching warships. And he warned, ``If there is an incident in the Persian Gulf ... regional oil will not be exported. ... We have a mine-producing factory that can produce mines like seeds.''
Despite the rhetoric, analysts and diplomats say that Iran is taking a wait-and-see approach to the US deployment, which is likely to last through the summer months. Barring an unforeseen flash point, the prevalent fear is that the Gulf situation will unravel in the fall, in October or November, when fighting in the land war between Iran and Iraq usually intensifies.
Iranian analysts and foreign diplomats speculate that Iraq may attempt to use the US presence as a shield, perhaps even hoping to draw in the US directly.
This picture holds that Iraq would launch a large attack on Iranian oil facilities or tankers doing business with Iran, hoping that Iran would retaliate against Kuwaiti tankers flying under US flag or on another target that would almost ensure a US counterstrike. With the more militant Revolutionary Guards now controlling war strategy, they say, a daring Iranian response seems more possible.
There are growing indications that Iran may be examining alternatives to the kind of mass ground offensives that draw Iraqi fire in the Gulf. Kamal Kharazzi, spokesman for Iran's Supreme Defense Council, indicated last week that military strategists now feel ground assaults alone may not be sufficient to topple Iraq's President Saddam Hussein - Iran's prerequisite for ending the war.
He suggested Iran was now also concentrating on building up Iraq's internal opposition, specifically the Shiites in the oil-rich south and the Kurds in the north.
Iran has attemped such actions in the past, including installing a short-lived Islamic government in captured southern territory. The implied goal this time would be to promote subversion inside Iraq to focus attention on the domestic situation.
In another major development, Iran also seems to be trying to defuse the stormy situation resulting from the July 31 Mecca riots, during which at least 400 were killed. Yesterday, Saudi Arabian diplomats were allowed to return to their embassy here, which was ransacked immediately after the Mecca clash between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security forces. Since Aug. 1, they had first been detained under armed guard at the Saudi mission, and then returned to their homes without papers that permit freedom of movement, other diplomats say.
Although police still guard the area, Saudi envoys were allowed to show diplomats from some 20 Islamic countries the looted and burned grounds, which are now adorned with banners declaring: ``The Saudi government is American'' and ``Down with the Shah, Fahd,'' a reference to the Saudi monarch.
In a key speech last Friday, Iranian President Ali Khamenei said that Iran's disputes with other countries had nothing to do with their embassies in Tehran, which should be protected, not violated.
Iran apparently wants to prevent further escalation of tension with regional neighbors. Diplomatic missions have been dispatched to Islamic states in recent days to explain Iran's position.
The move reflects political realities, including Saudi Arabia's importance in the Gulf, as well as economic necessity. Iran is more dependent on Gulf shipping than is Iraq, which has a pipeline through Turkey to export its oil. Diplomatic sources also say Iran does not want the friction over Mecca to help forge Arab solidarity against the Persian regime.
Tehran's increasing diplomatic isolation, unprecedented since the 1979-81 US hostage ordeal, is a source of widespread comment here. Diplomats and local analysts feel that - as in the standoff with the US in the Gulf - Iran's ruling mullahs have not actively sought confrontation. But as has become the Iranian diplomatic hallmark since the 1979 revolution, it defiantly refuses to succumb to foreign pressure.
Robin Wright is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.