THE BUSH administration quietly orchestrated a major shift in U.S. policy toward Iran this month, requesting $85 million from Congress to help bring about regime change in Tehran. Washington is now seeking not just to contain Tehran's nuclear ambitions but also to topple the Iranian government.
The war in Iraq has made all too clear the high cost of using military force to attain regime change. Accordingly, the administration is taking a page from Eastern Europe, where the United States used radio broadcasts and direct assistance to opposition groups to help undermine authoritarian governments and promote democracy. Administration officials explicitly cited Poland's Solidarity movement as a model.
Although democratizing Iran is a worthy objective, the administration is making a mistake in embracing a strategy for regime change based on the European experience. Conditions in Iran bear little resemblance to those that accompanied the downfall of dictatorial regimes in Europe, making it likely that the administration's new strategy will backfire and only strengthen Tehran's hard-liners. Instead of isolating Iran and seeking to undermine the regime from the outside, Washington should engage Iran, bringing about a natural process of political reform from within.
Across Eastern Europe, the opposition movements that toppled communism -- and have more recently brought democracy to places such as Georgia and Ukraine -- were avowedly pro-American. Dissidents were only too happy to receive assistance from Washington and to identify themselves with U.S. policy. Alignment with the U.S. remains a valuable political asset for Europe's new democracies.
Not so in Iran. A pronounced suspicion of the U.S. spans the political spectrum. The Bush administration's rhetorical -- and now financial -- support for the Iranian people only makes life more difficult for the democratic advocates it is intended to buttress. Iranian conservatives continue to respond to U.S. "interference" by cracking down on dissidents whom they portray as a "fifth column." Even those reformers with pro-American inclinations have been forced to cover their backs by denouncing American belligerence.
In Eastern Europe, the regimes felled by democratic revolt were brittle and illegitimate; they had long been discredited in the eyes of their citizens. In contrast, Iran's current regime enjoys considerable popularity. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been quite adept at wrapping himself in the mantle of nationalism. The Bush administration fails to appreciate that its coercive diplomacy on the nuclear issue is undercutting its effort to drain support from Iran's leaders.
The centralized regimes of Eastern Europe also maintained tight control over the media, so U.S. broadcasts and the covert distribution of information played a vital role in fostering democratic debate. Such measures will prove far less effective in Iran, where access to cellphones, the Internet and satellite TV is widespread. Although Iran does not have a free press, domestic debate is reasonably pluralistic.
The U.S. has a stake in Iran's internal power struggles, and the administration is right to want to undermine Iran's reactionary clerics. However, the best way to do so is to offer the Iranian people not radio broadcasts in Farsi but the realistic prospect of integration into the international community. Doing this gradually, starting with the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, the U.S. can encourage Tehran to embrace decentralization, accountability and transparency -- political practices that ultimately will bring down Ahmadinejad and his firebrand conservatives.
Moreover, Washington would be investing in a repository of goodwill within Iran, essential to nurturing a new generation of reformers that sees the U.S. as a prospective partner rather than the Great Satan. Coercive threats are needed to persuade Tehran to abandon its efforts to acquire the technology to produce nuclear weapons. But those threats must be accompanied by credible promises of political normalization should Tehran veer from its belligerent policies. Otherwise, only the hard-liners -- who rely on external demons and isolation from the international community to justify their monopoly on power -- benefit.
Eastern Europe's would-be democrats knew that the West was waiting for their countries with open arms, encouraging them to take the earliest opportunity to discard their repressive regimes. In a region still beset by deep distrust of American motives, Iran's progressives now need the same assurance.