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Iran seeking to become Mideast superpower

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TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- On the bustling streets of Tehran, the Iranians seem unaware of the critical times their country now faces.

The United Nations has said Iran must suspend its nuclear program by Thursday. And almost daily Iranian officials have made it clear they won't. Instead they are going to push ahead, even expand, their program, which they say is for making energy.

The latest remarks came at a rare news conference Tuesday by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- only his third since taking office in 2005 -- where he was eager to change the subject, challenging President Bush to a live TV debate. It's an unlikely prospect but one that is part of a larger strategy.

Iran wants to be the Middle East's superpower, to balance the influence of the United States. And Tehran is eager to solidify its influence. Iran is offering extensive financial support to rebuild Lebanon, across-the-board support for Iraq's government, and Ahmadinejad is emerging as the defining voice for disenfranchised Muslims.

Many Americans don't know enough about this rising power. I didn't until I got here.

Two worlds

There are certain misperceptions about Iran. One came to light at the news conference. There was not enough time for every reporter to ask questions, so local journalists repeatedly stood up and shouted their queries. But one man embarked on a lengthy reading of poems that brought the president and audience into moments of laughter -- a light atmosphere perhaps for a regime seen by many as unbearably repressive.

On the streets, the CNN crew has no minders, and we are free to go where we want. If we want to film inside a building, we need a letter from the government, but we've yet to be refused.

The people are very friendly, always eager to talk and tell you they like Americans. They like the culture, just not the government.

One woman said, "I admire the American way of life, the work ethic. I model myself after them."

It is the hard-liners who chant "Death to America," who revel in the government-sanctioned murals that say the same throughout the Iranian capital.

Of course, Iran faces just criticism on many other issues. While here, I interviewed Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi who runs a nonprofit legal defense group that represented people, she says, imprisoned for nothing. She says activists against the government are often charged with espionage. She, herself also faces arrest as Iranian officials have deemed her group illegal.

Women's rights continue to face threats from the more conservative aspects of Iran's population. It is mandatory all women cover their heads; it is not allowed for women to shake the hands of men. One never forgets that this is an Islamic republic.

The real Iran seems to lie between those two worlds. The government has a litany of strict laws on the book but does not always enforce them. It allows for some quiet moderation but retains the right to pull back.

And for the people, they know there is little they can do at the moment to affect what their government does. They are more observers than citizens.

Of course, Ahmadinejad won a substantive victory in Iran's election as a populist figure who promised much-needed economic reform. But while such reforms are still on the way, he has turned attention to the international stage and to the United States.

Tit-for-tat dynamic

As an American in Iran, you realize times are tense from the moment you arrive at the airport. I've been to Iran before, but for the first time, as I passed through immigration, I was fingerprinted and put through a lengthy process. I was the only American in the group arriving, so it seemed deliberate.

Iranian officials say that their citizens are put through exhaustive and, at times, preventative immigration procedures and so it is their right to reciprocate.

That tit-for-tat dynamic seems set to grow. Iran wants to be recognized as a legitimate power by the United States. And many feel that everything the United States does to Iranians, Iran's government feels compelled to do to Americans. Of course, few Americans are here, but the point hits home nonetheless.

The Iranian people are bracing for something. You get that sense when you talk to them.

Some already have started guessing what sanctions will come first. Gas imports is a likely candidate since the oil-rich country is short on refineries. "Gas will be the worst," one professor told me.

But there are few willing to say -- and those only off-camera -- that the country's nuclear program is not worth the risk of sanctions.

The reason is national pride. Iran feels it has the right, as other countries do, to have a peaceful civilian nuclear program.

With the U.N deadline nearly here, the two Irans wait -- the people, unsure of what possible sanctions would bring, and the government, seeking to become a regional power the United States respects.


CNN's Aneesh Raman


In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. CNN correspondent Aneesh Raman is one of the few U.S. reporters in Iran.




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