STANFORD — No country in the world today is as ripe for democratic regime change as Iran. Societal discontent with the conservative clerics who rule the country has been building for years and now pervades the society. This broad disaffection has produced splits within the ruling regime. Periodic outbursts of public discontent, like the student protests last month, are putting extreme pressure on the government. The regime's legitimacy is spent.
Still, the future is far from certain.
In the late 1990s, the policies of gradual political liberalization pursued by Iran's elected president, Mohammad Khatami, seemed the only viable strategy for progressives. Today, with thousands of demonstrators shouting in the streets, the Iranian people are no longer content with gradual change. They want democracy now. The clerics, who still control the army and the police, have reacted by clamping down, with new policies both at home and abroad that signal desperation. Out of this dangerous brew, some predict a velvet revolution, others civil war.
So what is the U.S. doing to help Iran find its path during this moment of both peril and opportunity? Not much.
The administration lacks a clear strategy for promoting democratic regime change in Iran, despite a strong rhetorical commitment to that goal. The absence of a clear game plan has allowed opportunists -- in both Iran and Washington -- to fill the void with their own interpretations of American policy. The result has been a dangerous confusion.
One group of Washington-based pundits and exiled Iranians wants to push the United States into increasingly hostile and direct confrontation with the Islamic regime, using coercive diplomacy and even military pressure if necessary. This group also wants to encourage demonstrators inside Iran to rise up and confront the regime as quickly and boldly as possible, even if this would prompt violence, revolution or civil war. Some members of this group -- following in the footsteps of the Iraqi exiles and U.S. policymakers who favored installing exiled banker Ahmad Chalabi as leader of Iraq -- are determined to handpick Iran's next leader. Their choice is Reza Pahlavi, the eldest son of the last shah to rule in Iran.
A second group in Washington is pushing for a completely different U.S. policy toward Iran: detente. Increasingly, Iranian hard-liners have hinted that they might be willing to restrain Islamic radicals based in Iran who are stirring things up in Iraq. But in exchange, they've suggested, they would want guarantees that the U.S. will not support opponents of the Iranian regime. Desperate to hold onto power, Iran's leaders seem suddenly willing to deal with the U.S. in exchange for stability.
These proponents of engagement inside Iran have allies in the U.S. Since Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected president of Iran 15 years ago, a group of U.S. scholars, retired diplomats and businessmen (especially oil company executives) has acted as de facto lobbyists for the Islamic regime. They considered Rafsanjani to be Iran's great hope: a "moderate mullah" who wanted rapprochement with the West. When reformer Khatami was elected to replace him in 1997, they changed horses, but not their recommended strategy of engaging with the existing regime.
Neither of these plans serves the long-term interests of the United States or the cause of Iranian democracy.
The first, confronting Iran, is an empty threat, since the U.S. does not have the military means and the American people do not have the will to invade Iran. The threat of American military intervention, therefore, only helps the conservative mullahs to rally people around the Iranian flag.
The second plan, engagement, might enhance U.S. security objectives in Iraq in the short run, but it would exacerbate an even greater threat to American security -- an Islamic regime bent on obtaining nuclear weapons.
Even if the U.S. had the capacity to bring about regime change in Iran through coercion, an American effort to choose the next regime would backfire, because the Iranian democratic movement is too developed and sophisticated to need or allow the U.S. to impose a government there.
It seems likely that key policymakers in the Bush administration see the dangers in each of these strategies and will steer clear of both. The problem is that few in Iran know this. Rather, President Bush's failure to articulate a clear U.S. strategy on Iran allows for all sorts of wild interpretations of U.S. motives and intentions.