Cracks in Iran
THE BUSH administration's recent steps against Iran, which have included the dispatch of a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf and the arrest of Iranian agents in Iraq, have worried a lot of people in Washington, who fear that the White House may be gearing up for another war. Fortunately, some influential people in Tehran appear to be getting nervous, as well. The stock market is dropping, and capital flight is accelerating. Some influential voices have begun publicly suggesting that flexibility as well as toughness is needed in dealing with the West. Pressure is growing on radical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has been rebuked by voters in recent elections, by parliamentary resolutions and by editorials in newspapers that reflect the views of the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
All this suggests that the U.S. measures, compounded by a U.N. sanctions resolution, may be having an effect on the mullahs. If so, the impact is sorely needed. During the past year Iran and its ally Syria have behaved as if they can defy the United States and United Nations with impunity. They have pressed a broad and violent offensive against Western interests across the region, from Baghdad to Beirut to the Gaza Strip, even as Iran has rejected Security Council orders to freeze its nuclear program.
It's too early to tell whether Iran will back off from that belligerent agenda: Last week its ally Hezbollah renewed its attempt to stage a coup against Lebanon's pro-Western government. But it's not too soon for the Bush administration to begin working on the next stage of its strategy. That's because the pushback tactics, while necessary to change the atmosphere of hubris in Tehran, aren't likely by themselves to achieve the administration's goals. The pressure needs to be carefully measured, since Iran, too, has the capacity to escalate, both in Iraq and elsewhere. While the threat of military action is useful, this president should not have to resort to that option.
What's needed is a mix of pressure with avenues for moderation by Tehran. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has offered to meet with Iranian officials and discuss a broad agenda of issues but only after the nuclear program is suspended -- a retreat Iran appears unlikely to undertake anytime soon. The administration doesn't help its cause by describing the Islamic regime as a Soviet-like monolith and publicly dividing the Middle East between pro- and anti-Iranian blocs. That ignores the very differences between extremists and moderates that can now be glimpsed in Tehran, and it invites Mr. Ahmadinejad to rally the country on a nationalist platform.
The most promising way of refining the current policy would be to return to a strategy that worked when the Bush administration tried it in 2001, which is engaging Iran in a regional forum. Five years ago the United States and Iran quietly cooperated within a larger group of nations to fashion a new regime in Afghanistan; now they have the possibility to work with Iraq's other neighbors to head off the escalation of sectarian war in Baghdad. To pursue such an initiative while simultaneously stepping up military and economic pressure on Iran, the Bush administration would have to forswear the Manichaeism it is so prone to in foreign affairs. But it might get better results.