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Iran: U.S. Rhetoric Against The Regime Could Boost Hard-Liners In Tehran

Washington is stepping up its hostile rhetoric against Iran, which it accuses of being one of the world's top state sponsors of terrorism. Critics warn, however, that such an approach could backfire and bolster the hard-liners in Tehran.

Prague, 6 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United States is accusing Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, of harboring top members of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, and of attempting to interfere in neighboring Iraq.

Iran was labeled by U.S. President George W. Bush as part of an "axis of evil," along with Iraq and North Korea, and there appears to be growing consensus within the U.S. administration for tougher measures against Tehran.

The debate in Washington is centering on whether trying to change the behavior of the Iranian government is preferable to changing the regime itself. Analysts say the State Department favors a more cautious diplomatic route, while hard-liners within the administration suggest a more aggressive approach, including the possible use of military force.

Mohammad-Reza Djalili is a professor at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. He told RFE/RL: "There are two contradictory tendencies in Washington toward Iran. One of them, which could be situated around the State Department and [Secretary of State Colin] Powell, consists in trying to establish a kind of dialogue with Tehran. Another tendency consists in putting pressure on Tehran. This tendency is supported by [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld. The hard tendency in Washington has recently been growing, following several Iranian actions that have been perceived very negatively by the United States."

The more aggressive stance toward Tehran follows U.S. intelligence reports that suggest Iran is harboring Al-Qaeda members. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said late last month, "Well, I'll leave the analysis to others, but just from a factual standpoint, there is no question but that there have been and are today senior Al-Qaeda leaders in Iran, and they are busy."

Some of the Al-Qaeda members allegedly in Iran are suspected of being involved in last month's Riyadh suicide bombings.

Tehran denies it is harboring Al-Qaeda operatives, as well as that it is developing a clandestine nuclear-weapons program. Tehran says its nuclear activities are peaceful and only meant to allay a domestic energy shortage.

Some U.S. policymakers want to exploit what they believe to be the sharp and growing divide between hard-line religious leaders in Iran and the majority of the country's 65 million people. Some favor overt means, such as antigovernment broadcasts funded by the U.S., as well as more covert operations. Others even suggest the possibility of preemptive military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities if Tehran does not come clean on its suspected programs.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, dismissed recent U.S. rhetoric, saying any military attack against the Islamic Republic would be "suicide for the aggressor."

Earlier this week, U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith denied Washington's seeks to topple the government in Iran, saying the future of the government is up to Iranians.

Critics question whether public discontent in Iran is sufficient to sustain an uprising. They warn that threats from the U.S. are likely to bring the hard-liners and reformists closer together.

Hooman Peimani, a Geneva-based independent consultant, told RFE/RL the unpopularity of the Iranian regime is, by itself, not enough to prompt a popular uprising. He said Iranians will rally against any U.S. provocation or aggression, as they did in 1980 when Iraq invaded.

"Surely, [such plans are] going to backfire. In such a situation, first of all, there is going to be a [consensus] within the government. And also the population at large is going to rally around the government in totality, not just behind one of its factions. It is true that when there is a hostile force along the Iranian border launching an anti-Iranian campaign, it is going to stimulate nationalist moves in Iran. [So] I believe that the ideology and the views of the hard-liners are going to gain popularity in the short term because of its anti-American and nationalistic tone," Peimani said.

Other analysts, however, including Djalili, say such developments are not certain, arguing that the Iranian regime is "completely exhausted," while the inability of its reformist wing, represented by President Mohammad Khatami, to effect change has disillusioned many former supporters.

Djalili also highlighted pro-American sentiment among Iranian youth. "There is also a pro-American sentiment [in Iran], which has developed considerably since the American intervention in Iraq," he said. "Besides, through the declarations and publications of Iranian students, we feel very well that a fight for freedom and democracy in Iran is taking place. This will not be abandoned when the regime talks about an eventual menace. It seems that saving the country's independence while closing its eyes on the government's actions is not possible anymore in the current context."

Ali Ansari is a lecturer in the political history of the Middle East at the University of Durham in Britain. He said Iranian hard-liners welcome the hostile rhetoric of the hawks in Washington because it helps them discredit suggestions from reformists that relations with the U.S. could improve.

"This sort of rhetoric is the ideal matter for the hard-liners because then they can claim that what we need is a state of emergency and to unite and to clamp down on free speech and this sort of thing. The reformers, I think, are arguing, on the other hand, that America would not be so aggressive toward Iran if the reforms were allowed to go through. If the Americans felt they are dealing with a popular government, then their position would be a lot more difficult," Ansari said.

Ansari said Washington could avoid strengthening the hand of the hard-liners if it draws careful distinctions between the regime in Tehran and the Iranian people themselves. He says the U.S. have so far failed to do that adequately and that Washington is paying the price for its failure.

"If they don't do that, which at the moment they're not, then it's very likely that it will have the consequence of being a unifying factor in Iran, as people basically all rally round against what they consider to be unjust and unfair accusations," Ansari said.

According to "Jane's Intelligence Digest" -- part of an analytical group based in London -- pressure on Iran is expected to mount in the coming weeks.

The U.S. Congress is set to request the removal of the Mujahedin Khalq from the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. The Iraq-based Mujahedin Khalq opposes the government in Tehran.

And the Bush administration is reported to be pressing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to rule that Iran is using its nuclear program to develop weapons of mass destruction. The IAEA is expected to issue a report this month assessing Iran's nuclear program. IAEA inspectors leave for Iran this weekend for a final inspection.

(RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel contributed to this report.)