Handle With Care

"You did a great thing!"

With that unexpected greeting from an Iranian diplomat in New York last December, my trip to Iran began to take shape. A few months earlier I had published a book that tells how, in 1953, the CIA deposed Iran's last democratic leader, Mohammed Mossadegh, and set his country on a path toward dictatorship and tragedy. Because my book honors Mossadegh, who was a secular liberal and who detested fundamentalism, I hardly expected any representative of the current Iranian regime, especially one who would rule on my visa application, to praise it.

I soon realized, however, that this government official is one of the many Iranians dedicated to the ideals of reform and reconciliation with the West, especially the United States. Most Iranians I had spoken with on previous visits share these views. They are frustrated by their lack of freedom and their country's isolation in the world. In whatever ways they can, they are pressing for social and political change.

A couple of years earlier, while in the process of researching my book, I had had enormous trouble getting into Iran. Now, suddenly, everything seemed to have changed. The difference could only be that I had published my book resurrecting the figure of Mossadegh. Iran does not observe international copyright conventions, and my book was quickly pirated, translated into Persian, and put on sale in Iran. Readers, especially Iranian readers, might take it as a story of how much Iran was poised to achieve under democratic rule -- and how much it lost by falling under royal and then religious tyranny. For better or worse, I became associated with Mossadegh's view that democracy is the best form of government for Iran. Today's Iranian reformers also believe that, and their enthusiasm undoubtedly was behind the warm praise with which this Iranian diplomat received my visa application at the end of 2003.

Iran, however, has two governments. One is a functioning democracy, complete with elections, a feisty press, and a cadre of reformist politicians. The other is a narrow-minded clique of mullahs that has lost touch with the masses and sometimes seems to have no agenda other than closing newspapers and blocking democratic change. These governments vie for power every day. Outsiders may be forgiven for seeing Iran as a country that can never make up its mind. Should it punish the prison guards who beat a photographer to death last year, or promote them? Should it cooperate with foreigners who want to monitor its nuclear program, or defy them? Should it allow reformers to run for parliament, or ban them? Iranian officials seem to contradict themselves endlessly on these and countless other questions, changing their positions from one day to the next. Behind that apparent indecision is a constant struggle between the old guard and the democratic insurgents. One group is dominant for a while, then the other surges back.

As the time for my January trip to Iran approached, I began contacting people there to arrange interviews. Among them were powerful figures in the religious regime, some of whom seemed alarmed to learn that a journalist who had written favorably about Mossadegh was being allowed into the country. A few hours before I was to leave, I received a startling message from the Iranian diplomatic mission in New York: Stay home or risk arrest at the Tehran airport.

I will probably never know what led to this sudden change in the regime's attitude toward me, but I have a theory: Probably I was caught in the same power struggle that envelops all of Iranian public life. Those who promoted my trip and obtained my visa so quickly did so because they hoped I would help propagate their ideals in Iran. Their conservative rivals also suspected I would do that, and when they learned I was coming, they stepped in to cancel my trip.

What happened in Iran at the beginning of this year, when I was supposed to be there, reflected the same ideological tug-of-war that made Iranian officials unable to decide on such a small matter as my visa. A full-fledged political crisis erupted as the parliament, which represents Iranian democracy, clashed with the shadowy Council of Guardians, the voice of reaction and fundamentalism. The council issued an order disqualifying nearly half of the 8,200 candidates who wished to run for seats in parliament. Among them were more than 80 of the 290 incumbents, including no less symbolic a figure than President Mohammed Khatami's brother. That order triggered a 26-day protest sit-in, a round of recriminations, and, in the end, an election that turned out badly for everyone. Reformers lost most of their seats, including that of Speaker Mehdi Karoubi. Conservatives lost much of what little democratic credibility they had left. But the clearest losers of all were the Iranian people. For now, at least, the option of change through the ballot box is closed to them.

In response to the crisis, Khatami issued statements questioning the Council of Guardians, but refused to challenge it or to criticize Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's unelected "supreme leader." That has been a huge disappointment to voters, who elected Khatami in a landslide in 1997 and then again in 2001. Unable or unwilling to fulfill the nation's reformist hopes, he has gone from the role of national savior to the butt of crude jokes. One of them tells of a woman who has been married for years but is still a virgin. When asked how this is possible, she replies: "My husband is President Khatami. He keeps saying 'I'll do it, I'll do it,' but he never does it."

Because politicians have been so unsuccessful in challenging the clerical regime, many Iranians have lost faith not only in them but in the entire political process. Deprived of the chance to vote for candidates of their choice, they stay away from the polls in droves. Their frustration is quite different from the fatalistic lassitude that has shrouded much of the rest of the Middle East for centuries. Iranians are a highly cultured, educated people with a rich history who trace their lineage to the Persian Emperor Cyrus, author of what is sometimes described as history's first human-rights declaration. (Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, introduced herself in Oslo as "a descendent of Cyrus the Great, the very emperor who proclaimed at the pinnacle of power 2,500 years ago that he 'would not reign over the people if they did not wish it.'")

For more than a century, Iranians have painstakingly been making their way toward democracy. Iran has the human and natural resources to be at least as successful as regional powers like Mexico, Turkey, and Malaysia, but its people suffer under a regime whose failures have given them both an undemocratic political system and plagues of unemployment, corruption, drug abuse, child prostitution, and other forms of social decay. Many find escape in a burgeoning subculture that revolves around the Internet, satellite television, and other subversive tools, but they shy away from political action because no cause or leader captures their imagination.

This year's confrontation over who should be allowed to run for parliament was widely covered in the Western press. Some officials in Washington eagerly interpreted it as a sign of the regime's impending collapse. In Iran, however, it was no big deal. Friends of mine there, whom I heard from by e-mail after my trip was canceled, were unanimous in their disgust.

"The sit-in sounds more serious outside the country," a journalist wrote. "Most people see it as a political show by reformers to attract people's support. I highly doubt that they would have been able to get elected even if they were allowed to run. Many say that they were cheated when they voted for the reformers, and that reformers are deeply faithful to the system." A student in his mid-20s was just as pessimistic. "The reformers have missed golden opportunities since the presidential election in 1997," he lamented. "Now they want to compensate, but it is so late. People ignore them. We know the conservatives are the worst alternative, but the reformists are a bad one. We are looking for new faces, but there is no one."

If so many people in Iran are so unhappy with their government, why don't they rise up and overthrow it? During my last visit there, 18 months ago, I put this question to various people. All gave me the same answer. One university professor put it most succinctly. "We all banded together to overthrow the shah in 1979, everyone from communists to Mossadegh liberals to religious fanatics," he told me. "We were able to work together because we all agreed on one thing: Nothing could be worse than the shah. But what happened? We got something worse. We learned a terrible lesson. You don't want to go out onto the streets and start the wheel of revolution rolling. You never know where it will lead. It's better to be patient and unhappy than risk another catastrophe."

Iranians fervently wish for change, but not through revolution. Nor, despite the fantasies of some in Washington, would they welcome foreign intervention. Such intervention, in fact, would probably be the only thing that would bring many of them to support the regime they loathe. After all, the country's bitter history has led many Iranians to consider foreign intervention the greatest evil that could befall them. The British robbed them of their oil wealth during the first half of the 20th century, British and American agents organized the coup that crushed their democracy in 1953, and Americans propped up Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi for 25 years.

Early in the Bush administration, some policy planners seriously considered the possibility of sending troops to overthrow the Iranian government. "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran," a British official working with the Bush team said ominously in mid-2002. If the American soldiers who invaded Iraq had been greeted with garlands of flowers instead of guerrilla resistance, those "real men" might well have sent them on. Some militants still argue for it. David Frum and Richard Perle, now that they have cut their official ties with the White House and are free to express views that their friends in the Bush administration may still hold, assert in their new book An End to Evil that the Iranian regime "must go." [See Karl Meyer, "Return to Empire," page 54.] They urge the United States to crush it "with no more compunction than a police sharpshooter feels when he downs a hostage-taker."

History warns against that course. The U.S.-sponsored coup of 1953 led to decades of upheaval in Iran. It turned the country toward tyranny and led to the rise of a regime that has used every tactic at its disposal, including terrorism, to undermine American interests in the world. Public opinion in Iran is strongly in favor of democratic reform, and that reform will come, albeit not nearly as quickly as most Americans would like. Intervention would not only turn a new generation against the United States but also end Iran's fitful progress back toward the democracy it lost after the CIA coup of 1953.

There will not be any invasion of Iran this year. Nor, unfortunately, is there likely to be any advance in Iranian-American relations. Part of the reason is that foreign-policy circles in Washington and Tehran mirror one another. One group in each capital favors reconciliation, and they have been in sporadic contact with each other over the years, including during the Bush administration. Their efforts, however, are repeatedly sabotaged by hard-liners in both capitals, who have spent years in confrontation mode.

Iran is not a closed garrison state like North Korea, and its clerical regime is not a self-destructive dictatorship like Saddam Hussein's. Its leaders, including the dour mullahs, are eminently rational, and they now appear more willing to listen to proposals from Washington than at any time since they seized power in 1979. Despite President Khatami's evident failures, he has shifted the center of political gravity in Iran. Political and social ideas are more freely debated there now than at any time in half a century. Women must still wear veils, but vigilantes no longer brutalize those who show their hair, wear makeup, or talk to men in public. This year, for the first time in 25 years, British artists will show their work at a Tehran museum and American archeologists will work at sites in the Iranian desert. The government has invited members of the U.S. Congress to visit.

The Bush administration has been unable to decide how to respond to these overtures. Some officials apparently believe that the United States should not engage with Iran simply because it makes no sense to negotiate with a regime one wishes to destroy (or at least hopes will soon collapse). That is foolish, as engagement is the best tool the West has to encourage change in Iran. There are, however, several good reasons for caution.

Officials in Washington are rightly concerned about Iran's nuclear aspirations, and rightly dubious that Iran will keep its promise not to produce nuclear weapons. Seen from the Iranian perspective, the nuclear project makes perfect sense. Israel, the only country in the region that is truly Iran's enemy, has nuclear weapons. So does the United States, which has troops on both Iran's western border (in Iraq) and its eastern border (in Afghanistan), and whose president has famously designated Iran as part of the world's "axis of evil." One certain way for Iran to deter an attack from either of these hostile powers would be to do what India, Pakistan, and North Korea have done: develop nuclear weapons. Only if the United States stops threatening Iran, and instead accepts some arrangement that offers it a place in a new Middle Eastern security structure, can it be seriously expected to curb its nuclear ambitions.

The administration is also put off by Iran's atrocious record of sponsoring terrorism around the world. Iranian agents, acting with the support of at least some factions in the regime, have assassinated dissident exiles in various European capitals, launched attacks on American military bases, and even, according to several intelligence agencies, planned the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, that took 85 lives. The regime may have pulled back from this murderous course of late, but it must offer credible assurances to that effect if it expects serious dialogue with Washington. It still supports groups that militantly oppose the current Middle East peace process, yet even that seems open to negotiation. Khatami recently asserted that if Palestinians were offered a deal they wished to accept, Iran would not "impose [its] views on others or stand in their way." Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is an absolute prerequisite to stability in the Middle East, and although Iran has been no friend of the peace process, its very militancy could make it a uniquely valuable force if it could be enticed to moderate its position.

Many leading Democrats agree that engagement with Iran would bring better results than confrontation but are afraid of being labeled as softies. John Kerry's national-security adviser, Rand Beers, said in a recent speech that Kerry favors "a realistic sitting down, and having the kinds of discussions that we're just not having because this administration is so tied in its own ideological views of Iran and waiting for the Iranian regime to collapse." To cover his flank, he added: "John Kerry is not saying that he is looking for better relations with Iran. He is looking for a dialogue with Iran."

So are some influential Republicans. "Engagement is the right policy, even though it's very difficult to do at times," Senator Richard Shelby, former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told me recently. "Military confrontation would be wrong unless it's forced on us, because the Iranians would all rally to their government. We should be looking for ways to do business with them, and then wait for the profound changes that I think are coming."

What would make a sensible U.S. policy toward Iran? First, the United States should accept the reality of the Islamic revolution and commit itself to a peaceful resolution of differences between the two countries. Iran is in a period of transition, and it is in everyone's interest to allow this process to proceed. The overwhelming majority of Iranians want peaceful change; the United States should embrace their cause.

Second, in approaching Iran, American officials should bear in mind that this is a country where rhetoric is unusually important. For a combination of historical, cultural, and religious reasons, Iranians feel a deep-seated need to be approached respectfully. American leaders can and should make clear that their interest is in reaching out to help the Iranian people, not the ruling clerics. If they take an accusing or commanding or imperious tone, however, they cannot expect a good response.

Third, the United States should recognize that change in Iran will have to come from within. Iranians will reject any faction that Washington endorses, especially if it is based outside the country. For more than a century, resistance to foreign intervention has shaped Iranian politics. It is folly to believe that Iranians are any more likely to accept intervention now than they were in the past.

Finally, American leaders should approach Iran together with allies, especially the European Union. One of the few recent successes the Iranian regime can claim has been the repairing of its ties with Europe. Iranian leaders know that they must strengthen those ties if they are to improve their economy and emerge from political isolation. European officials brokered last year's deal between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Iran will be especially eager to begin talks with the United States if Europeans are also involved.

To embark on this policy, the United States would have to recognize that Iran is not in a revolutionary or prerevolutionary state, that it is essentially stable despite the continual bickering among political factions, and that its people do not wish for either revolution or foreign intervention. Some powerful figures in the Bush administration, captured by messianic visions and convinced that American power can achieve any goal, refuse to accept these facts and want the United States to intervene in Iran. Only by resisting that temptation can the United States hope to reach a grand bargain that would integrate Iran into a peaceful Middle East. Such a bargain is now at least conceivable. American leaders should pursue it seriously, because d├ętente between Tehran and Washington could help reshape the world's most volatile region.

Restraint, engagement, and the support of allies brought about America's epochal victory in the Cold War. The same formula can work today in Iran.