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Temper the Course on Iran

May 29, 2003

Covert action to bring about regime change has not been a particularly proud or successful page of American history. In Central America, a number of bloody regimes came to power with the connivance of the CIA. And in Iran, in 1953, the CIA engineered a coup that eventually led to the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Does the Bush administration want to go down that road again in, of all places, Iran? The administration, with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in the lead, is right to pressure Iran to turn over any Al Qaeda agents it may be harboring and to come clean on any secret weapons facilities it may have. Russia is helping by demanding that Iran submit to comprehensive International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.

For the United States to take another step, to endorse regime change by either direct or covert action, would be a profound mistake.

The White House put off a high-level meeting about Iran on Tuesday because the hawkish Pentagon and the more dovish State Department are at loggerheads over whether to confront or engage Tehran.

The debate is eerily similar to the period before the recent Iraq war, despite the much greater practical and philosophical hurdles to justifying any action against Iran. Neoconservatives inside and outside the administration are arguing for toppling the mullahs; Republican strategist William Kristol, who led the public charge for war in Iraq, declared in the May 12 Weekly Standard that "we must ... take the fight to Iran, with measures ranging from public diplomacy to covert operations."

Iran is not benign, and it may be frighteningly close to developing a nuclear weapon. But it does not politically resemble Iraq. University professors and students hold protests against the regime, despite the occasional arrest. Iran has held relatively free elections leading to the rise of President Mohammad Khatami, a slow reformist who called upon the Islamic world Wednesday to reject terrorism and fanaticism.

Half the population was born after the 1979 revolution and largely rejects the repressive religious rule of the conservative mullahs. These young people have no direct memory of the rule of the U.S.-sponsored shah. Western rock music, lipstick and everything else the mullahs despise attract the young. The surest way to inflame anti-Americanism would be for the United States to engage in ham-handed covert military activity.

The U.S. can best encourage reforms in Iraq with steady external pressure, including continued low-level talks with Iranian officials. It should quickly demonstrate a hands-off attitude toward weak and dubious exile groups.

Washington needs to be overt in its policy, speaking and acting in ways that reject any destabilization of Iran.

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