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August 6, 2004 -- AS if trying to add a last- minute item to a banquet menu, the Bush adminis tration is busy concocting an "Iran policy" for this month's Republican Party convention.

In recent weeks, the administration has solicited input from many experts and Iranian-Americans. There are no signs, however, that the end product will amount to a blueprint for dealing with a problem set to dominate America's Middle East policy for years.

To some, it may be news that the first Bush administration is drawing to a close without having worked out a policy outline on Iran. Many will be surprised that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and her team have produced National Security Directives (the standard guidelines on policy) on more than 70 countries, but none on Iran.

The reason for this paralysis is the Bush administration's divisions over an analysis of the problem, not to mention possible solutions.

Early in his presidency, Bush included Iran in an "Axis of Evil," and came close to committing himself to regime change there.

The Pentagon supported that position. The State Department, however, retained the analysis made in the final year of the Clinton administration, which saw Iran as "something of a democracy" with which the United States must seek "positive engagement." The National Security Council avoided taking sides by refusing even to commission a paper on Iran.

The policy vacuum has encouraged some Republicans to try to commit the United States to regime change in Iran through legislation, as happened with Iraq during the Clinton administration. Meanwhile, some Democrats have tried to exploit the Bush administration's lack of policy by promoting rapprochement with Tehran.

This is in sync with Sen. John Kerry's long-held views. In a conversation on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, almost two years ago, Kerry spoke of his desire to "engage Iran in a constructive dialogue." Last December, in an address to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York, Kerry promised to adopt "a realistic, non-confrontational policy with Iran," ultimately leading to normalization "just as I was prepared to normalize relations with Vietnam, a decade ago."

Last month, the CFR endorsed Kerry's position in a report on Iran produced by a Task Force led by President Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser Zbigniew Bzrezinski and former CIA Director Robert Gates. The report amounts to an attempt at reopening Iran to U.S. oil, aircraft, and construction companies.

Yet both sets of advocates — of regime change and of détente — base their different strategies on a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation in Iran.

Advocates of "regime change" claim that the Islamic Republic is on the verge of collapse and that what is needed is an extra push from America.. The promoters of détente insist that the Khomeinist regime is "solidly entrenched" and that Iran is "not on the brink of revolutionary upheaval."

Both are mistaken because they see Iran as a frame-freeze, ignoring the realities of a dynamic political life. The "overthrow" party underestimates the resilience of a regime that is prepared to kill in large numbers while buying support thanks to rising oil revenues. The détente party, on the other hand, underestimates the growing power of the movement for change in Iran.

Both camps also ignore the dialectics of the Irano-American relations. The "overthrow" party ignores the fact that improving relations with Washington could help the regime solve many of its economic and diplomatic problems, thus strengthening its position. The détente camp fails to acknowledge that a U.S. commitment to help the pro-reform movement win power in Iran could alter "the solidly entrenched" position of the Khomeinists and encourage "revolutionary upheaval."

In other words, any U.S. action, or inaction, could help alter the picture in Iran.

Both the "overthrow" and the détente camps in Washington see Iran through the prism that was used for determining policy on Iraq under Saddam Hussein. But the Iranian system is not dependent on an individual and his clan. There are internal mechanisms for change — mechanisms which, if helped to function properly, could produce the changes desired both by the people of Iran and the major democracies led by the United States.

Iraq was a tete-à-tete between Saddam and Washington. Iran is a triangle in which the Iranian people, the Khomeinist regime and the United States have different, at time complementary and at others contradictory, interests and aspirations.

Whatever the outcome of the coming U.S. presidential election, Washington cannot equivocate on Iran much longer.

Anyone with knowledge of Iran would know that a majority of the Iranian people are unhappy with the status quo. America shares that discontented, albeit for different reasons. The reasons for U.S. discontent cannot be eliminated by endorsing the status quo in the name of détente: Instead, that would help consolidate the regime, and policies, that caused the discontent in the first place.

The Iranian people and the United States share an interest in promoting change in Tehran. But that shared interest does not mean that the people of Iran would give Washington carte blanche for regime change.

Iran is passing through a phase experienced by virtually all nations that have emerged from a major political revolution. In such a phase, the divergent interests of the state and the revolution come into conflict.

Any student of Iranian politics would know that today there are two Irans. One embodies the Khomeinist revolution that controls the instruments of power; the other represents the Iranian nation-state as shaped over the past 400 years.

In some cases the interests of the two coincide; in many more they diverge.

Today, Iran is one of only two countries in the Middle East (the other is Israel) where the United States enjoys popular support. The reason is that the U.S. is seen as the only major power not yet prepared to appease the Khomeinist regime.

Those who preach détente are, unwittingly perhaps, trying to appease the Khomeinists — an ultimately self-defeating task. If implemented, their policy could turn the people of Iran against the United States, thus, paradoxically, underpinning the regime's anti-American message.

Yet the "overthrow" scenario could also alienate the Iranian people by confirming the Khomeinist claim that the U.S. "imperialism" is out to impose its will, regardless of domestic popular movements.

Rather than hastily endorsing half-baked ideas to fill the vacuum on Iran, President Bush and Sen. Kerry should use the campaign for debating the issue at some depth, thus allowing a more realistic understanding of Iran to emerge as the basis of a serious policy.

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