London. -- We could be in another world. Only 12 years ago this very day, Jimmy Carter engaged in an impossible battle for re-election while consumed with the nightmare of the American hostages held in Iran.
Since then, in short succession, we've had the Iraq-Iran war, the Persian Gulf war, the arrival on the scene of both the Jewish and the Islamic nuclear bomb, the emergence of new ex-Soviet Muslim nations and the Middle East peace talks. Yet in this American presidential election none of this gets more than a sniff of attention from the candidates.
Even the latest revelation in the pages of The New Yorker interests only the cognoscenti. It reports that George Bush, when vice-president, got his elbows deep into the Iranian mud. As a way of bringing pressure on Iran to release Western hostages held in Beirut, he encouraged Saddam Hussein to carry out bombing raids in the heartland of Iran. The voters appear uninterested. They have other things on their mind -- themselves.
No one should deplore Americans taking a little time out for their own immediate interests. Decades of economic and social neglect need a measure of undivided attention. But equally, it should not come as a surprise if, in four years time, the Iranian issue will be as dominant as at the Carter-Reagan election. Of all the world's potential trouble spots, this is the one that has all the ingredients of big-time confrontation.
Ever since the death of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, too many commentators have wishfully turned Iranian president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani into the modern, moderate, middle man. Measured against the bombastic cruelty of the ayatollah, there may be something in this, but more shrewdly appraised, Mr. Rafsanjani is a leader who will stop at nothing to maintain his position, and who is determined to wage war against Israel even if the Palestinians and their Arab backers decide to make peace.
We've had a taste of the Rafsanjani approach just this month. Iran decided to challenge the United Arab Emirates' control of three islands at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, unsettling a long-established compromise arrangement. Jordan felt moved to accuse Iran of planning an Islamic coup against it. Iran continues to use its control of the militant Hezbollah in Lebanon as a thorn in Israel's side: This week, five Israeli soldiers were killed when their tank was blown up.
At the same time, Iran shows no sign of letting up in its campaign to assassinate its opponents living in France, Switzerland and Austria. It persists in threatening the life of novelist Salman Rushdie. Iran is rearming itself with highly sophisticated weapons and working at headlong speed to develop a nuclear armory; there is a good deal of evidence that it has already acquired at least two nuclear weapons from the former Soviet stockpile in Kazakhstan.
There is no real reason to think that Mr. Rafsanjani demurs from all this, although it is convenient, on occasion, to blame it on the influence of the radicals. As the Iranian political scientist, Shahram Chubin, puts it, President Rafsanjani likes to "deny the extreme, while exploiting it; to allay suspicions with soft words, international conferences and smiles, while covertly persisting with a hidden agenda."
What is Iran up to? Apart from the three Persian Gulf islands, Iran has no territorial claims. Iraq settled its boundary dispute with Iran as Saddam Hussein feverishly cleared the decks to deal with the threat of Desert Storm.
It is simply that Iran feels, as the most populous country in the region, that it should regard itself and its interests as paramount. Those interests at the moment may be Islamic revolutionary; under the shah they were geopolitical.
Iran is frustrated by the lack of a natural geopolitical constituency. It is not part of the Arab world, and its links to the non-Arab Muslim states, Turkey and Pakistan, are insubstantial and tenuous. No wonder it tries to play the Islamic card, making the most of its Shiite co-religionists scattered around the region, with significant concentrations in Iraq and Bahrain. Shi'ism, Iran believes, shuns the status quo -- hence a foreign-policy activism that many neighbors regard as opportunistic and threatening.
Iran supports Islamic fundamentalism in Algeria and Sudan. It openly competes for influence with Saudi Arabia in Afghanistan and central Asia, and it is unrelenting in its criticism of the peace dialogue between the Arabs and Israel. All the time there is the continuous refrain that too many of the Arab nations depend too much on the North American and European powers for security.
For now America has other things to think about. But if the Palestinians and Israel do make peace, Iran may become the chief irritant in the Middle East. It may all come to dominate the next American election.
Jonathan Power writes a column about the Third World.