President Bush has outlined a strategy for dealing with Iraq but not with Iran. Although the goal may be the same—democratic regime change—the options being discussed for Iraq do not apply to Iran. Because the fate of the two countries are intertwined, it is imperative that President Bush explicitly make the distinction and articulate his policy toward Iran before proceeding with his plans for Iraq.
The Bush administration must stop treating Iran as a unitary actor and instead recognize and support the allies of liberty there, while seeking to contain the capabilities and ambitious plans of their enemies.
The promotion of liberty in Iran requires a new engagement with democrats within the country, in both the state and the society. Iranian president Khatami is not, as some insist, the Gorbachev of the anti-Islamic revolution because he does not control the guns. Nor has a Yeltsin-like figure (i.e., someone determined to destroy the ancient regime rather than reform it) emerged in Iran. Still, the parallels between the late Soviet period and the current situation in Iran are striking. Those in Iran who do control the guns (and the courts, economy, and media) are the same corrupt dinosaurs who are trying to keep afloat a revolutionary regime that has lost its spark and repress a society eager for change.
This analogy suggests a similar strategy for American foreign policy—sustained praise for and encouragement of reformers within the state and quiet support, including material support, for societal actors seeking to change the system altogether. Senior U.S. officials should meet directly with Khatami. In parallel, the Bush administration should launch an active engagement strategy with Iranian society, including more broadcasting time for Radio Free Europe targeted at Iran, more exchanges between scholars, business people, and think tanks, and more educational opportunities for Iranian students in the United States.
In engaging the democratic side of state and society within Iran, the Bush administration also must do more to contain the antidemocratic forces. Most important, President Bush must call on his friend in Moscow, Russian president Vladimir Putin, to stop selling Iran nuclear technologies. The Bush administration should also insist on an international weapons inspections regime in Iran.
Finally, Bush should state clearly that the United States will not invade Iran. The current ambiguity about American plans for Iran strengthens hard-liners and weakens the prodemocratic movement because no one wants to appear unpatriotic. Bush should also state his preference for maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq and Iran so that Iranian militants do not delude themselves into thinking they could seize part of a weakened Iraq and so that Azeris within Iran do not aspire to independence in a democratic Iran.
The demise of the last radical fundamentalist regime in the Islamic world would represent a great defeat for those such as Osama bin Laden who aspire to create such regimes. A democratic and Islamic Iran would be a powerful positive model for the region.