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Why Did Bush Blink on Iran? (Ask Condi)

Twenty years ago, I watched U.S. diplomats conspire with their diffident European counterparts to discourage President Ronald Reagan from a political, economic and moral assault on the Soviet Union aimed at, well, regime change. Well-meaning diplomats pleaded for flexibility at the negotiating table, hoping to steer U.S. policy back toward detente. But Reagan knew a slippery slope when he saw one. At the defining moments, he refused the advice of the State Department and intelligence community and earned his place in history.

It is not clear whether Bush recognizes the perils of the course he has been persuaded to take. What has been presented to Ahmadinejad as a simple take-it-or-leave-it deal -- stop the activities that could enable you to acquire nuclear weapons and we will reward you, or continue them and we will punish you -- is nothing of the sort. Neither the activities nor the carrots and sticks are clearly defined or settled with our allies, much less with Russia and China. If the punishments require approval by the U.N. Security Council, the United States would need an unlikely combination of approvals and abstentions from council members. The new policy, undoubtedly pitched to the president as a means of enticing the E.U.-3 to support ending Iran's program, is likely to diminish pressure on Iran and allow the mullahs more time to develop the weapons they have paid dearly to pursue.

No U.S. administration since 1979 has had a serious political strategy regarding Iran. That has been especially evident in the past decade, when the bloom was off the rose of the Islamic revolution, the Revolutionary Guard joined the baby boomers in middle age and the Islamic republic sank into political, economic and social decline. Opponents of the regime have been calling for a referendum on whether to continue as an Islamic theocracy or join the world of modern, secular democracies. They are sure of the outcome.

The failure of successive U.S. administrations, including this one, to give moral and political support to the regime's opponents is a tragedy. Iran is a country of young people, most of whom wish to live in freedom and admire the liberal democracies that Ahmadinejad loathes and fears. The brave men and women among them need, want and deserve our support. They reject the jaundiced view of tired bureaucrats who believe that their cause is hopeless or that U.S. support will worsen their situation.

In his second inaugural address, Bush said, "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for liberty, we will stand with you."

Iranians were heartened by those words, much as the dissidents of the Soviet Union were heartened by Reagan's "evil empire" speech in 1983. A few days ago, I spoke with Amir Abbas Fakhravar, an Iranian dissident student leader who escaped first from Tehran's notorious Evin prison, then, after months in hiding, from Iran.

Fakhravar heard this president's words, and he took them to heart. But now, as he pleads for help for his fellow citizens, he is apprehensive. He wonders whether the administration's new approach to the mullahs will silence the president's voice, whether the proponents of accommodation with Tehran will regard the struggle for freedom in Iran as an obstacle to their new diplomacy.

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) tried two weeks ago to pass the Iran Freedom Support Act, which would have increased the administration's too-little-too-late support for democracy and human rights in Iran. But the State Department opposed it, arguing that it "runs counter to our efforts . . . it would limit our diplomatic flexibility."

I hope it is not too late for Fakhravar and his friends. I know it is not too late for us, not too late to give substance to Bush's words, not too late to redeem our honor.

rperle@aei.org

Richard Perle, former chairman of the Defense Policy Board and assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is an American Enterprise Institute fellow.


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