Containing Tehran

By David Ignatius
Friday, January 20, 2006

How should the United States think about Iran? What explains the fanaticism of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and what can America and its allies do to change it?

These baseline questions are at the heart of an informal review of Iran policy that's taking place at the highest levels of the Bush administration. The discussions, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley, are an effort to anchor America's opposition to the Iranian nuclear program in a broader strategy. The goal is not simply to stop the Iranians from making a bomb but to change the character of a regime that under Ahmadinejad has swerved onto a new and dangerous track.

In crafting their Iran policy, administration officials don't want the nuclear issue to be isolated from the more basic problem of Tehran's erratic and potentially destabilizing role in the Middle East. The message to Iran is that while the United States opposes Iranian nuclear weapons, it supports a technologically advanced Iran that, as it matures, can play a leading role in the region. A shorthand for the administration's policy aim might be: No to Ahmadinejad, yes to the Iranian people and a modern Iran.

The administration wants to engage key allies in these Iran discussions. In the short run, the goal is to gain agreement among European allies, Russia and China that the International Atomic Energy Agency, at its meeting next month, should refer the Iranian nuclear issue to the U.N. Security Council. But over the longer term, the administration hopes these allies will work with Washington to change Iranian behavior on issues such as terrorism and regional stability. Officials don't like the Cold War term "containment," believing that it connotes a static policy, but the word suggests the strategic commitment they want on Iran.

Rice and Hadley recognize that the United States carries a lot of baggage in its dealings with Iran. They want to avoid, if possible, a situation that appears to be a Bush vs. Iran confrontation. The administration decided last year to work the nuclear problem through the European Union countries negotiating with Iran -- Britain, France and Germany -- in part to avoid making America the issue. Although the E.U. negotiations have failed to stop the Iranian nuclear program, administration officials hope to maintain a united front as the issue moves toward the United Nations.

A key question for U.S. officials is how to assess Ahmadinejad's radicalism. Many were surprised by the belligerent tone of his speech to the U.N. General Assembly last September, and worries deepened after his reckless statements denying the Holocaust and calling for Israel's destruction. The toxic spirit of the 1979 revolution seemed to have returned.

An intellectual benchmark in the Iran debate was a briefing given to officials last fall by Jack A. Goldstone, a professor at George Mason University who is an expert on revolutions. He argued that Iran wasn't conforming to the standard model laid out in Crane Brinton's famous study, "The Anatomy of Revolution," which argued that initial upheaval is followed by a period of consolidation and eventual stability. Instead, Ahmadinejad illustrated what Goldstone called "the return of the radicals." Something similar happened 15 to 20 years after the Russian and Chinese revolutions -- with Stalin's purges in the late 1930s and Mao's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Goldstone explained. He argued that Iran was undergoing a similar recrudescence of radicalism that, as in China and Russia, would inevitably trigger internal conflict.

The gist of Goldstone's analysis gradually percolated up to Rice, Hadley and others. What has intrigued policymakers is the argument that Ahmadinejad's extremism will eventually trigger a counterreaction -- much as the Cultural Revolution in China led to the pragmatism of Deng Xiaoping. Officials see signs that some Iranian officials -- certainly former president Hashemi Rafsanjani and perhaps also the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- are worried by Ahmadinejad's fulminations. Unless the Iranian president moderates his line, wider splits in the regime are almost inevitable, officials believe. They also predict that his extremism will be increasingly unpopular with the Iranian people, who want to be more connected with the rest of the world rather than more isolated.

Getting Iran policy right is the biggest foreign policy challenge of the new year. Ahmadinejad's wild statements have had the beneficial effect of concentrating the minds of policymakers, who in the past have often differed over Iran and have had trouble framing a formal policy. Officials don't yet have a clear strategy that could bend Iranian radicalism back toward an acceptable norm, but they're assessing the tools that might work. This time they are looking carefully -- and thinking seriously -- before they leap.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company