The Next Flashpoint

After three nights of protests in Tehran, the plainclothed militia decided to send a message to the students on the other side of the barricades. "First they tear-gassed the building, then they came in swinging their batons," says a gaunt-faced student who was in the Shahid Hemat dormitory on the night of Friday, June 13. A handful of his terrified dorm mates jumped out of a second-floor window. When they hit the ground, members of the Ansar-e-Hezbollah militia were waiting for them with brass knuckles, knives and electric batons. "There were people with stab wounds and broken noses. One guy was beaten unconscious," says the student, clasping his fingers together tightly. "I've never seen anything like it." Yet despite the crackdown, the protests--demanding greater political and social freedoms--spread to nearly a dozen cities across Iran last week.

To many inside the Bush administration, however, the bloody clashes look like a godsend. For months President George W. Bush's foreign-policy team has been deadlocked over how to handle the Iranian regime. Should the United States directly confront Iran's hard-liners, as it did Saddam, or simply mobilize diplomatic pressure? Should it engage in talks with reformers inside Tehran, or provide covert aid to enemies of the mullahs? The students seemed to offer another option for an administration already grappling with saboteurs in Iraq and suicide bombers in Israel: to sit back and wait for a second Iranian revolution. Only this time the revolution, it is hoped, would sweep in American values, not drive out Americans altogether as happened in 1979. As the protests rumbled on last week, U.S. officials told NEWSWEEK they were pinning their hopes for new Iranian leadership on a general strike called for July 9--the anniversary of a 1999 violent crackdown on reform-minded students.

It's a strangely passive position for a White House that likes to "lean forward" against regimes tied to terrorism, or those aiming to go nuclear. Iran seems guilty on both counts, but it's a tricky case, in no small part because of those students in the streets. Washington wants to pressure the ayatollahs but doesn't want to hurt the reformers in the process.

That results in strange policy contortions. President Bush, for instance, last week declared that he and the international community "will not tolerate construction of a nuclear weapon" by Iran. Yet for the moment, Bush is hoping to stop the mullahs' bomb plans with the very people he dismissed as --ineffective in Iraq: United Nations weapons inspectors. That has prompted scorn from conservatives, who don't believe that Tehran's quest for nukes, including its recently discovered uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz, can be stopped by inspections alone. Foreign intelligence agencies estimate that Iran may be just two or three years from producing its own nuclear bombs--and the hawks worry that a full round of U.N. inspections could drag on far longer.

The administration is also conflicted about how to encourage political change in Tehran. For now, it has little to offer but finely tuned statements. Bush declared that America "stands squarely" beside the students, warning the hard-liners "to treat them with the utmost of respect." However, White House officials refuse to say the words "regime change" to describe what they want to see in Tehran. That unusual shyness does not win them much support on Capitol Hill. "We're pressing for clarity in U.S. policy toward Iran and it may be faster than the administration wants to move," says Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas. Such help is largely unwelcome among Iran's downtrodden reformers. "American interference has only helped the conservatives," Behzad Nabavi, deputy speaker of Iran's Parliament, told NEWSWEEK.

Still, among Washington's conservative intellectuals, the drumbeat has begun for a far more aggressive policy. Influential neoconservatives--including Michael Ledeen, a Reagan-era counter terrorist consultant who established a channel to Tehran that grew into the Iran-contra scandal--have established a lobbying group called the Coalition for Democracy in Iran. Ledeen, who is close to several government hawks, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, believes the ayatollahs are ready to be toppled. He says he has been talking to Bush officials about his views. Administration officials insist they have no plans to overthrow the regime using either covert or overt action, although they also refuse to rule out additional support for anti-ayatollah TV broadcasts that originate in the United States.

Some neocons believe the burning memory of Iran-contra is holding back many inside the White House from a more aggressive approach in Iran. Case in point: the mixed treatment of the leading Iranian opposition group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK). Although the MEK is a designated terrorist group, it lobbies openly and successfully in Washington through its political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran. When U.S. troops in Iraq negotiated a ceasefire with MEK forces close to the Iranian border, there were bitter struggles within the Bush administration as to how to deal with the anti-Iranian fighters. The MEK fighters were ultimately disarmed, although their weapons remain in a holding area.

On one issue the Bush administration is very clear: the Clinton-era offer of engagement and limited trade with Iran is off the table. There were limited contacts between Bush officials and their Iranian counterparts that began during the war in Afghanistan and continued through the Iraq invasion. But the United States canceled the last round of those talks in Geneva, Switzerland, amid reports that Iran was harboring Qaeda suspects. Administration officials say those talks could restart. But even dovish U.S. diplomats tell NEWSWEEK that the discussions were of limited use and were no prelude to a thaw in a relationship that has sat in the deep-freeze since the 1979 revolution. Besides, the president's senior national-security officials have not even scheduled another meeting to discuss Iran policy. "The administration doesn't have a coherent policy," says Flynt Leverett, the former Bush White House adviser on the Middle East. The only people making the case for talks are Bush's friends and allies in Europe, who are playing a kind of a good-cop routine in contrast to the bad-cop glare from the White House. The Europeans are trying to engage Iran as intensively as possible--French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin visited Tehran in April, and British foreign-office officials have met with their Iranian counterparts twice this year. They're offering increased trade ties and, above all, international respectability--the prospect of Iran losing its pariah status. The United States, meantime, has put Iran once again at the top of its list of terrorist states.

But there is a problem with both approaches. The Europeans can't offer Iran a key carrot--the lifting of U.S. economic sanctions--because as one Western diplomat in Tehran explained, "it isn't on the [negotiating] table." Without that incentive, Iran's mullahs are not likely to loosen their grip on power or defer their nuclear ambitions. The drawback of the U.S. approach, on the other hand, is that it just strengthens the hand of the Iranian hard-liners, who are pressing for nuclear weapons to keep the United States at bay. Even Iranian reformers see the value of the country's nuclear program as a bargaining chip.

So far, the transatlantic rift over Iran seems even deeper than it was over Iraq. White House officials believe the Europeans are both naive about the reformers and cynical in profiting from their extensive trade with Iran. While some in Washington flirt with regime change, France last week closed down the Iranian opposition, arresting more than 150 members of the MEK. French officials insist the arrests--which prompted a wave of protesters outside French embassies, including some who set themselves on fire--were the result of a judicial crackdown on terrorists and separate from foreign-policy concerns about the Iranian regime. But some European diplomats believe Paris was cozying up to the ayatollahs and undermining the students in Tehran. "The timing was entirely suspect," said one.

Whether or not they enjoy American support, the students are portrayed as Washington's stooges by Iran's hard-liners. And that dark suspicion about American motives is not confined to the clerics. Among ordinary Iranians, mistrust of America dates back to the 1953 coup that placed the shah in power. "What can America do for us?" said the gaunt-faced student near his Tehran dorm last week. "They're only looking out for their own interests." Times may be changing in Tehran. But Washington can expect little thanks, no matter what it decides to do next.

The Next Flashpoint | News