A real live American is a rare find in Iran these days. At an official "Death to America" rally in Tehran last year, a horde of giggling chador-clad high school girls asked for my autograph. Like many other Iranians I talked to during the 18 months I spent working there, they were tired of the regime's rants about the "Great Satan" and greeted me like a long-lost cousin.
Our absence has made the Iranian heart grow fonder, though that emotion reflects resentment toward the clerics at the top more than innate enthusiasm for America. Despite widespread frustration with the regime's repressive methods and rank hypocrisy, no organized opposition movement or leader has emerged to harness public anger. Contrary to what some neoconservatives might tell you, Iran is not on the verge of revolution.
As the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran looms -- if Secretary of State Colin Powell's warning last week turn out to be correct -- the United States will have to face that reality. Pretending otherwise only strengthens the hand of the ruling clerics. Last week, Iran managed to buy time by negotiating a deal with Britain, France and Germany in which it promised to suspend uranium enrichment in return for avoiding a referral to the U.N. Security Council.
A similar, less detailed agreement brokered a year ago with the Europeans unraveled in a matter of months. Given allegations last week that Iran may be adapting missiles to carry nuclear weapons and secretly enriching weapons-grade uranium at a secret facility, this latest agreement with the European trio may not last long either. The United States will in all likelihood come to regret its decision to stand by, shaking its head disapprovingly while European initiatives falter.
With Iran cleverly playing off divisions between Europe and America, it has become clear that only a united approach can concentrate minds in Tehran. Indulging fantasies about toppling the regime or seductive plans for unilateral action are merely excuses for avoiding the hard work required to forge an international consensus. Iran's clerics would exploit any U.S. go-it-alone response by stirring up national feeling and seeking out sympathetic treatment from other governments.
Throughout the months I spent as a journalist there, I encountered a sense of despair among Iranians and a desire to simply tune out the regime. Instead of demonstrating, young Iranians try to carve out their own private world away from the dreary sermons and social restrictions. They seek escape through pirated films, drugs and discreet flirtation via the Internet and phone text messages.
Street demonstrations have steadily dwindled in size since 1999, when student unrest peaked. The total absence of a mature, coherent opposition, coupled with raw fear of their leaders, makes Iranians reluctant to risk beatings from paramilitaries for protests that have no clear objective.
The 1997 election victory of President Mohammad Khatami had raised expectations that the theocratic system might embrace a degree of democracy. Those hopes have now been thoroughly extinguished. Hard-line clerics overruled Khatami and his reformist allies in parliament, shut down their newspapers and jailed dissidents and student activists.
The final humiliation for Khatami's reformists came last February, when conservatives banned more than 2,000 candidates from running in parliamentary elections. Reformist deputies in parliament announced a sit-in, issuing bold warnings. Seated cross-legged in the carpeted lobby of the parliament building for a few weeks, the gathering resembled a slumber party more than a serious stand-off. The reformists attracted strong interest from foreign journalists, but ordinary Iranians dismissed them. Those who once supported the reformists had already written them off for their reluctance to confront the regime. The sit-in ended in a whimper.
Disenchantment with the reformists runs deep. In a polluted, run-down working-class district of Tehran, where the regime once enjoyed loyal support, young men such as 25-year-old Sohrab have given up on their generation's prospects. He told me he once marched for press freedom, and four years ago he voted for reformist candidates. "They know how to fool us. I had a lot of enthusiasm at the time. But I won't vote again. The parliament has no authority," he said. "Even if my father becomes a candidate I won't vote."
In the affluent neighborhoods of north Tehran, where wealthy Iranians live behind high-walled gardens with swimming pools, foreigners are told that the regime is fading and will collapse with the slightest Western push. Yet these Iranian businessmen who cut deals with the regime are not ready to voice such opinions outside their villas for fear of jeopardizing their stakes in the economy. With world oil prices at record levels, the regime is awash in revenue and many go along to get along.
Even if revolution seems far away, Islamic militancy has proved a colossal failure. Once in power, Islamists found their simplistic, distorted ideology could not satisfy the needs of the population. Instead of social harmony and spiritual revival, the Islamic revolution has turned young people away from the mosque, widened the gap between the rich and poor, oppressed women and stifled freedom of expression. But because there is no Lech Walesa or Nelson Mandela organizing against the theocracy, change will not come soon.
One sure way to derail the cause of democracy would be heavy-handed U.S. action. Iranians retain a deep sense of national pride, and a clumsy covert operation or a stray bomb from the United States would be a gift to the mullahs. Air raids or other intervention of this kind would turn the focus away from the regime's failures and revive the idea of America as the villainous imperial meddler. The troubled American-led occupation of Iraq next door has already given the regime a rationale for cracking down on dissent at home and painting its critics as traitors.
Ask members of the political establishment in Tehran about U.S. warnings, and you hear confident answers. They speak about Europe's keen interest in the Iranian market, and hint that Iran could make life much more difficult for the United States in Iraq. Military or covert action against Iran's nuclear sites would bring swift, unprecedented retaliation against American troops next door, the possible mining of shipping lanes in Iran's backyard -- the Strait of Hormuz -- and yet another anti-American backlash in the Islamic world.
The Iranian regime has always seen nuclear deterrence as a strategic goal, a way of enhancing its status as a regional power, intimidating Israel and fending off a possible U.S. attack. But unlike in North Korea, pragmatists within Iran's leadership care about the country's international position and want to avoid universal condemnation and sanctions.
They know that European governments distrust the current American administration and want to preserve their commercial interests in the country's oil-rich economy. Tehran has also cultivated Russia to help build a light-water nuclear reactor in Bushehr, and in return, Moscow has treated Iran gently when it has been caught stalling U.N. inspectors.
The Bush administration wants the issue referred to the U.N. Security Council. But Iran is gambling that France, Russia and China will oppose any genuine sanctions. A U.S. trade embargo that dates back to the 1980s has damaged Iran but never crippled it. Staking out more unilateral ground would simply play into the regime's hands.
Only transatlantic unity provides hope of heading off Iran's secretive nuclear experiments and a potential lethal arms race across the region. That will require the United States to start speaking directly to Iran, without concessions or conditions, in the same direct way we spoke to the Soviets during the Cold War. Holding talks with Iran would not mean forgiving the regime's crimes at home or abroad, but it would demand the kind of tough-minded, skillful diplomacy that ultimately contained the Soviet threat.
A limited dialogue would provide a way of discussing the nuclear issue without having to resolve a myriad of grievances and lingering disputes. There is too much historical and psychological baggage between Iran and the United States to defuse prevailing suspicions and strike a "grand bargain."
Negotiations on Iran's nuclear project would have to offer carrots and sticks, to be hammered out beforehand between Europe and the United States. Russia and China, which just sealed a major oil deal with Iran, would somehow have to be part of the equation and persuaded to hold Iran accountable. Membership in the World Trade Organization and a proposed security pact for the Gulf region that would include Iran might form part of the bargain, along with a clear set of escalating, punitive sanctions if Iran fails to cooperate. European states would have to forsake or suspend some of their trade with Iran, something they have studiously avoided so far. If the Bush administration can take a multilateral approach to North Korea's nuclear project, then why not with Iran?
Whatever strategy prevails, the United States has to face reality. Those Iranian school girls will stop asking for American autographs if U.S. bombs start falling. And although the girls wish us well for now, the leadership is already anticipating unilateral American action with a certain amount of relish. If the Iranian regime were to be confronted instead with one unequivocal, international voice, it would find itself with limited room to maneuver.