WE HAVE NO enemies," said Iran's minister of defence, Akhbar Toukan, in a recent interview. As a result, the country can get by with one of the smallest military procurement budgets in the Gulf of around $1bn a year, he claimed. Exactly how much Iran spends on defence is a matter of some debate the United States puts it closer to $2bn. But moderate elements in the regime are anxious to stress Iran's peaceful intentions.
American military action against Iraq has heightened fears in Tehran among the more cautious officials that if Iran is seen to be promoting fundamentalist dissent in the Arab world and seeking to dominate the Gulf, it too will bring down upon itself the wrath of the United States. They are made particularly nervous by statements such as that by Ayatollah Ahmed Jannati, a senior aid of Ali Khamenei, the supreme spiritual leader, who declared last November that, in preparation for a "Third World War" between Iran and the West, Iran was "activating" its anti-Western cells around the globe.
Such spine-chilling threats fall on receptive ears in the Arab world as well as the United States. Egypt and Algeria, in particular, see the hand of Tehran's radicals in their troubles with clandestine Islamic militants. "Those who think that what is happening in Algeria and Egypt are internal problems are gravely mistaken," declared Algeria's interior minister. Mohammed Hardi, at a recent meeting of Arab interior ministers convened specially in Tunis to coordinate the fight against politicised Muslim extremism. The ministers evidently had Iran very much on their minds, and who can blame them when the Tehran Times, normally noted for its relatively judicious tone, suggested that Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak should be violently removed from office.
Arab leaders look with suspicion at Iran's attempts to create closer ties with the Muslim republics of Central Asia. They are apprehensive of reports that Iran is sending aid to the Bosnian Muslims, to the extent that Saudi Arabia is reportedly stepping up its assistance to counter Tehran. Iran has become highly influential in Sudan, which boasts an avowedly fundamentalist regime. And there is little doubt that Iran is giving financial help to sympathetic Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.
The suspicion works both ways. Khamenei's frequent pronouncements on international issues give the impression that Iran is the beleaguered victim of an unremitting American conspiracy. The United States has been...