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Help Iran by Backing Off

June 17, 2003

Iran's weeklong student protests are not likely to topple the theocratic government from power. Students lack a leader they can rally around, and they don't want to appear to be stooges of Washington. Still, the generational protests are a sign that the days of the aging, reactionary mullahs and their violent followers are numbered. The best thing for the United States to do, which President Bush appears to recognize, is stay out of the way.

The demonstrations are likely to continue until July 9, marking the anniversary of the beginning of 1999 student demonstrations that the government forcibly suppressed. The new protests are the most sustained since 1999 and are aimed at Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a hard-liner, and mildly reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who is widely seen among the young as ineffectual. In addition, 250 intellectuals, clerics and journalists have signed a statement declaring that the idea that Khamenei is the representative of God is "heresy." In other words, they want an end to strict theocracy.

The Bush administration has defended the right of the protesters to demonstrate, but has rightly said that U.S. support goes no further than that. Meddling in the internal affairs of Iran would discredit the protests and strengthen the pro-clergy militants who have violently attacked protesters.

Unfortunately, a few lawmakers can't keep their hands off Iran. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) are sponsoring legislation that would use State Department grant programs to support U.S.-based satellite broadcasts into Iran. The protesters have explicitly rejected any overt U.S. support, both for their own nationalist reasons and because the hard-line mullahs would use it against them.

Where the administration and its European allies are, and should be, demanding change is in Iran's nuclear activities. The European Union on Monday called for Iran to accept new and intrusive weapons inspections if it wants a trade and cooperation agreement. International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei is also urging Iran to agree to short-notice inspections and more access to nuclear facilities. Worries center on Tehran's previously concealed attempts to build an enriched uranium facility at Natanz.

Iran's government has not been inflexible; Khatami recently denounced terrorism and has cautiously tried to open up the boundaries of society against hard-line adversaries. Faced with enough internal and external pressure, the mullahs could budge -- as long as the changes do not seem linked to U.S. demands.

For the United States, the best outcome in Tehran would probably come from maintaining as low a profile as possible.

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