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The Iran Dilemma

By George F. Will
Thursday, September 23, 2004; Page A29

A ten-year-old had awakened his parents in horror, telling them he had been having an "illegal dream." He had been dreaming that he was at the seaside with some men and women who were kissing, and he did not know what to do.

-- Azar Nafisi, "Reading Lolita in Tehran"

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What the young Iranian should have done to please the regime running the Islamic Republic of Iran is obey the prison rules in Vladimir Nabokov's novel "Invitation to a Beheading": "It is desirable that the inmate should not have dreams at all."

Nafisi, who left Iran in 1997 and now teaches at Johns Hopkins University, says, "What differentiated this revolution from the other totalitarian revolutions of the twentieth century was that it came in the name of the past." In the name, that is, of a lost religious purity and rigor.

Iran is not a mere literary dystopia. It is perhaps the biggest problem on the horizon of the next U.S. president because it is moving toward development of nuclear weapons, concerning which the Bush administration has two factions. One favors regime change; the other favors negotiations. There is no plausible path to achieving the former and no reason to expect the latter to be productive.

The regime-changers have their hands full with the unfinished project next door to Iran. Negotiations cannot succeed without one of two things. One is a credible threat of force, which America's Iraq preoccupation makes unlikely. The second, which is also unlikely, is a mix of incentives, positive and negative, that can overcome this fact: Iran's regime is mad as a hatter, but its desire for nuclear weapons is not irrational.

Iran lives in a dangerous neighborhood, near four nuclear powers -- Russia, India, Pakistan and almost certainly Israel -- and the large military presence of another, the infidel United States. Iran has seen how the pursuit of nuclear weapons allows the ramshackle regime of a tin-pot country such as North Korea to rivet the world's attention. Iran knows that if Saddam Hussein had acquired such weapons, he would still be in power -- and in Kuwait. And even if the major powers could devise security guarantees sufficient to assuage Iran's geopolitical worries, there remains the regime's religious mania:

Until 1994, Nafisi says, Iran's chief film censor, who previously had been theater censor, was nearly blind. He would sit in a theater with an assistant who explained what was transpiring on stage and took notes on the cuts the censor required. The showing of "Billy Budd" on television was condemned because it supposedly promoted homosexuality -- although the television programmers chose it because it had no female characters. After the 1979 revolution, the regime lowered the marriageable age of women from 18 to 9. Since 2002 -- this is Iranian moderation -- a court's permission has been required to marry younger than 13.

President John F. Kennedy could not have imagined that such a backward-facing regime would be among those that would acquire the most modern of weapons. In the 1960 presidential campaign, he cited "indications" that by 1964 there would be "10, 15 or 20" nuclear powers. As president, he said that by 1975 there might be 20 nuclear powers. Today it is unclear whether North Korea has become the ninth by weaponizing its fissile material.

It is in the United States' interest -- indeed, the interest of all members of the nuclear club -- to keep new members out. But a mere aspiration is not a policy. The club will expand over time. U.S. policy can vigorously discourage this but must discriminate among, and against, nations. It is unlikely, but possible, that China's weight, properly applied in the context of North Korea's desperate material needs, can prevent North Korea from crossing the threshold. However, Iran is almost certainly going to cross it.

Iran can negotiate in bad faith while it continues its progress toward development of such weapons, as North Korea has done while increasing its supply of plutonium. When that tactic has been exhausted, Iran can come to agreements that it then more or less stealthily disregards, as North Korea has done.

On Tuesday, four days after a U.N. agency told Iran not to do it, Iran announced that it has begun processing 37 tons of yellowcake (milled uranium) into a gas as part of a process to produce a compound that can be used in nuclear power plants but that also can be a precursor of highly enriched uranium for weapons. U.S. policy is that the "international community," whatever that is, "cannot allow the Iranians to develop a nuclear weapon" (Condoleezza Rice, Aug. 8). It is surreal to cast this as a question of what anyone will "allow" Iran to do.

georgewill@washpost.com


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