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U.S. Split Over How Hard to Push Against Iran

May 30, 2003|Robin Wright and Doyle McManus | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The debate within the Bush administration over confronting Iran has generated an even deeper divide than occurred during prewar discussions on Iraq, according to administration officials.

The dispute over policy broadly breaks down into two disparate goals: behavior change versus regime change.

The split is more intense this time "for the simple reason that everyone basically agreed on the need for regime change in Iraq," said a well-placed U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The differences were over how and when it was achieved and what role the international community played.

"On Iran, the debate is much more fundamental. It's whether there should be regime change at all."

The most outspoken advocates of ousting Iran's ruling clerics are the same neoconservatives in the Pentagon, Congress and Washington think tanks who first advocated ending the quarter-century rule of Saddam Hussein. As on Iraq, the neoconservative lobby is facing serious opposition from the State Department, the CIA and, for now, the National Security Council.

The hawks on Iran want to exploit what they believe is a sharp and growing divide between the hard-line religious leaders and the majority of Iran's 65 million people and would like to find a way to support, overtly or covertly, the burgeoning anti-theocracy movement among Iran's young people and women, U.S. officials say.

Pressed on whether regime change was a goal, a senior administration official who backs tougher action said in an interview this week: "You bet.... We want a regime that reflects the will of the Iranian people" rather than the "thuggish mullahs" who have veto power over virtually all government decisions.

The administration's disputes with Iran center on the country's nuclear program, its ties to extremist groups and its role in postwar Iraq.

Although none of the serious players is advocating an imminent war, the administration is under growing pressure from neoconservatives to launch more aggressive action to undermine or confront the regime.

Their thinking is reflected by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who advocates a congressional mandate for regime change in Iran, much as Congress acted in the late 1990s to press for a new government in Iraq.

"We'll never have true stability in the region as long as the Iranian regime remains in power," he said at a recent conference of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "We're riding a horse and we're in the middle of the stream. We've got to press on to the other side."

Some neoconservatives, such as former CIA analyst Reuel Gerecht, have even dangled the idea of preemptive military strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities if Tehran does not come clean on its suspected programs.

Some also are calling for covert intelligence operations, including actions that exploit widespread discontent among Iran's younger generation. "The more we can mobilize the Iranian population with us on these issues, the more chance we have of succeeding," said another leading administration hawk who refused to be identified.

But others in the administration are taking a softer line.

"Are there people who would like to change the regime? Sure. But policy hasn't changed. So take the anonymous debate as no more than that until we announce otherwise," one miffed State Department official said.

Another senior administration official said: "We're pursuing the policy we've had and trying to get Iranian cooperation, particularly on Al Qaeda. At moments the Iranians have cooperated more, and at moments they've cooperated less. No one is threatening to invade or take any dramatic new measures."

With the immediate focus on the Middle East peace process and postwar Iraq, the White House is holding off on discussions until the administration sees how Tehran responds to demands made public during the past two weeks for turning over Al Qaeda operatives, including about half a dozen suspected senior officials. The United States believes that new operations chief Saif Adel and Saad bin Laden, a son of Al Qaeda's founder, are both in Iran.

"Let's first see what Iran decides to do," the State Department official said. "This is a window of opportunity, an opportunity to act."

President Bush said Thursday that he expects the Tehran regime to detain all Al Qaeda operatives in Iran and hand them over to their countries of origin. "If there are Al Qaeda in Iran and they plot against the United States ... obviously we're going to be displeased with that," he said in an interview with Al Arabiya, a satellite news channel based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on the eve of his departure for Europe and the Middle East.

"My hope, of course, is that the Iranians respond," Bush said. "And they've heard our message loud and clear, and I suspect they will."

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