Rethinking Iran

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

IRANIANS ONCE again have voted for change in their authoritarian and corrupt Islamic regime. Their choice for president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, differs dramatically from the liberalizing reformer voters backed in two previous elections, but Mr. Ahmadinejad, a religious hard-liner, is no more likely to satisfy restless Iranians than his failed predecessor. He should instead prompt the West to rethink its own strategy for promoting freedom inside Iran, and for containing Iran's nuclear program and support for terrorism.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, 49, a former mayor of Tehran, offered a message of economic populism and, implicitly, a rebuke to the Iranian political establishment. That apparently won him a landslide victory among those Iranians who chose to vote -- much of the democratic opposition supported a boycott -- over 70-year-old former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a symbol of the discredited old order. But while he has promised a moderate government, the new president is more likely to tighten than loosen the political and personal freedoms of Iranians. He is also conspicuously less interested than was Mr. Rafsanjani in pursuing better relations with Western investors and governments, including the United States. He is outspoken in his support for Iran's nuclear program, and he could promote more aggressive Iranian sponsorship of terrorist activity against Israel or U.S. forces in Iraq.

The Bush administration and other Western governments will want to watch carefully for such a negative shift in Iranian foreign policy in the coming months. But Mr. Ahmadinejad's election also means that real power in Iran will lie more than ever in the hands of its Shiite clergy and the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Mr. Khamenei could still decide to pursue a deal with European governments that would curtail the Iranian nuclear program: That, anyway, is the hope those governments will cling to. The Bush administration has wisely backed European diplomacy in recent months while reserving the right to insist that Iran be referred to the U.N. Security Council for violating the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Though there is no reason to welcome the new Iranian government by offering fresh concessions, neither is there an immediate cause to abandon the current approach, unless Iran breaks its moratorium on fuel processing that could produce bomb materials.

Both the Bush administration and European governments need to begin working, however, on a better Plan B. As it stands, a referral to the Security Council appears unlikely, on its own, to achieve much, since both China and Russia could block any imposition of U.N. sanctions. The administration reportedly is working on new ways to stop Iranian proliferation from the outside, such as by penalizing companies that provide key supplies. Though better than nothing, such measures won't be effective unless they are broadly supported by the Europeans, with or without U.N. resolutions. Even better would be a credible European threat of curtailing most investment and commerce.

Perhaps most important, the elimination of political liberals from Iranian government should make it easier for Western governments to explicitly side with Iran's demoralized but still substantial pro-democracy movement, even if that offends Mr. Ahmadinejad. The new president, after all, is not worth much attention. He offers no real solutions to his country's problems; his populist policies are doomed to failure. For better or worse, his election has merely made the twin threats facing the Iranian regime -- domestic revolution or international isolation -- more acute.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company