Three years after George W Bush denounced Iran as a member of the "axis of evil", the threat of Iran appears to be looming large over the horizon once again. In his most recent State of the Union address, Bush reminded the world that the Islamic Republic was the primary sponsor of state terrorism, and, while he acknowledged the Iranian people's desire for "freedom", he let it be known that Iran would in no way be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons technology. Raising the temperature against the "Persian menace" is nothing new, and we are periodically subjected to rhetorical flourishes, particularly when allies wish to reaffirm their loyalty to one another. Thus, as Condoleezza Rice engineered US bridge-building with "old Europe" (and the EU in general), a natural consequence of this process of healing was for everyone to heartily join in a condemnation of Iran. Expect similar historical revisionism to raise its ugly head if the Middle East peace process discovers a new momentum. All of a sudden, Arabs and Israelis will rejoice in their common roots and redirect their mutual ire towards the perfidious Persians.
All this builds on an age-old stereotype, which sees the Persians as cunning, interfering, manipulative, and essentially mendacious; a prejudice which precludes any meaningful dialogue or negotiation. No caricature is without its truths, but it rarely penetrates beneath the surface. Iranians (or Persians - they are one and the same) may be both charming and manipulative, but this may reflect the fact that historically speaking, they have relied more on their wits than their military might for their survival, whether as a distinctive culture, or as a state. In short, the Persians are quintessentially political animals rather than military ones. A recognition of this salient fact will help shed a different light on the reality of the "Persian menace".
Let us first deconstruct the notion that Iran poses a military threat to the stability of the region or, in more hyperbolic renditions, the world. As suggested above, the historical record does not support this proposition. Strictly speaking, the last war of aggression launched by an Iranian monarch was in 1739, and since that time, the Iranian state has largely been on the defensive. Such was the military impotence of the Iranian state that James Morier's witticism that Persians would be happy to fight as long as nobody had to die, became a staple of many a briefing.
It came as something of a shock therefore, when in 1980, following the Iraqi invasion, the Iranians showed that not only could they fight, but were very much willing to die, in quite extraordinarily high numbers. Western observers were awed and horrified at the spectacle of human wave attacks, and suddenly rediscovered the terror of the "Persian horde". There is no doubt that through much of the 1980s, revolutionary Iran was the villain of the piece, such that when an Iraqi pilot in a French Mirage jet inadvertently let loose an Exocet missile (reportedly "on loan" from the French government) towards the USS Stark, killing 30 US sailors, President Reagan indignantly laid the blame on the "barbaric Iranians". The logic of this escapes me to this day, and as more sober observers sought to point out, history would record that the war was initiated by Iraq, as were its many escalations, from the war of the cities, to the Tanker war, and the use of chemical weapons (to which it should be emphasised, the Iranians did not retaliate in kind). Moreover, the Iranians left the war traumatised by its experience, and eager not to repeat it. Films, books and recollections all reflected on the horror of the "Imposed War", and while martyrs were hailed, the experience of war was not. Indeed, in 1998, in the aftermath of the murder of Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan, the army was mobilised, but Iranian leaders were loath to sanction military action.
Yet if Iran is not a "martial nation" in the conventional sense, aggressively seeking expansion, could it be seen as a more "sinister" covert threat to the stability of the region? Here the debate is more real, if none the less not helped by the exaggeration of some of the allegations. Experience has taught Iranians that conventional wars are expensive in both human and material terms, and frankly, in the past 200 years, they have not been very good at it. Low-intensity warfare, or terrorism (depending on one's perspective), combined with bribery, sedition and manipulation, can on the other hand, deliver great results for very little outlay. There is no doubt that Iran indulged in all sorts of dubious activities during the war years. But a point often missed by critics is that Iran was at war, and Iraq enjoyed the support of most Arab states in the region as well as the west, and as such was considered a legitimate target for destabilisation.
That said, the most obvious and blatant acts of terror committed by the Iranian regime have been against its own people, not against westerners (Rushdie is arguably the exception in this regard), and we would do well to remember that more Iranians have died as a result of American actions since 1979 than vice versa (let us not forget that the captain of the USS Vincennes was awarded a medal for bravery). The allegations with respect to the bombing of the Jewish centre in Buenos Aires, and the al-Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, remain just that, and to date there has been no evidence to substantiate Iranian involvement. Last year an Iranian diplomat was arrested in Britain pending extradition to Argentina, but despite two months of incarceration, no evidence was forthcoming, and he was released. Given the importance of this allegation, and the ten years that the authorities had to collect evidence, this is a curious absence. Of course, it may just reflect the devious cunning of the Persians (or, the current favourite of politicians in a bind, "intelligence failures"). As Donald Rumsfeld notoriously announced, "The absence of evidence does not necessarily mean evidence of absence."
When western politicians talk of terrorism, what they are really referring to is Iranian support for militant groups opposed to Israel, and certainly with respect to Hezbollah, the evidence is very clear. Moreover, Iran does not help itself by perpetually denouncing Israel's right to exist, although even here the notion that the Islamic Republic of Iran would be willing to launch a nuclear strike against Israel and thereby destroy Jerusalem (the third holiest city for Muslims), strikes me as more than somewhat ridiculous.
Iran's nuclear ambitions, whatever they may be, have less to do with military might than prestige and the projection of political power and influence this implies. There is no doubt that Iran sees itself as the regional hegemon, and this naturally worries many people. Yet if Iran does currently enjoy a regional status beyond its immediate and obvious abilities, this is largely because it has, ironically, been the chief beneficiary of the war on terror. The United States has done an excellent job of eliminating two of its regional rivals, in what may in retrospect be regarded as a striking failure of American grand strategy. How could the Americans have been so blind-sighted? Could they have been duped? Was Ahmad Chalabi really an Iranian agent? Those Persians, they really are very, very cunning.
Ali M Ansari is Reader in Modern History at the University of St Andrews, and associate fellow of the Middle East Programme, Chatham House