As student protests against the government continue in Iran, debate is growing in Washington about U.S. policy toward Tehran. On the one hand, the Bush administration has provided strong rhetorical support for the demonstrators. But for now, President George W. Bush has stopped short of publicly promoting "regime change."
Washington, 17 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As student-led protests against the Iranian government continue for a seventh day, pressure appears to be mounting on the Bush administration to more clearly articulate its policy toward Tehran.
Since taking office in January 2001, the administration of President George W. Bush has still not issued its national security directive on policy toward Iran. Observers say that's because the administration, split between its State Department "doves" and Pentagon "hawks," has yet to make up its mind on what to do.
Gary Sick, an Iran expert and professor at Columbia University in New York City, says, "I don't think the United States really has a policy toward Iran at the present time, other than a sort of rhetorical policy."
That policy has included public appeals by Bush directly to the Iranian people -- "over the heads of their leaders to let them know that we agree with them," as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has put it.
More than 140 people have been detained in Iran during the past week of protests, which have involved thousands of people and are the most serious challenge to the leadership since university protests last November and in the summer of 1999.
The demonstrations are aimed at both Iran's hard-line Islamic regime and the reform group led by President Mohammad Khatami. Protesters say the reformers have not gone far enough in promoting democratic change.
Asked about the protests on 15 June, Bush again offered his moral support for those taking risks by publicly protesting Tehran's Islamic regime. "This is the beginnings of people expressing themselves for a free Iran, which I think is positive," Bush said.
To be sure, such rhetorical support has been enough to prompt Tehran to accuse Washington of meddling in its affairs. Iran has also accused the United States of materially aiding the protesters, which Washington denies.
But recent developments on the ground are fueling a heated debate in Washington on whether U.S. policy toward Iran should, in fact, get tougher.
First, there have been revelations that Iran's nuclear program is much further ahead than was previously thought. And now, a week-long wave of student-led protests appears to have underscored yet again the potential for a peaceful revolution in Iran.
Coupled with those factors is the strategic, pro-democracy shift in the Middle East that has come with U.S. military victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sandwiched between those countries and thousands of American troops is Iran, a sworn enemy of America, with which it has not had relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Raymond Tanter, a University of Michigan professor and Iran expert who served in former President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council, doesn't think that diplomatic pressure will work. "I think that regime change ought to be the policy of the Bush administration. But regime change doesn't mean that you need the 4th Infantry Division to come in from the north and meet up in the south with the 3rd Infantry Division coming in from the south and the Marines coming in from the West. That is, Iran is not Iraq," Tanter says.
Tanter also says the United States should assist the Iraq-based People's Mujahedin Organization (MEK), so that it can launch a cross-border insurgency against Iranian regime targets. Currently, the MEK has been disarmed as part of a cease-fire deal with U.S. forces in Iraq. It is also on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.
While such steps are controversial, the rising chorus for supporting Iran's peaceful democratic opposition can be heard in the U.S. Congress. A bill called the Iran Democracy Act is being debated that would provide $50 million to Iran's opposition.
"The students need more than rhetorical support," Tanter says. "They need covert backing for their demonstrations. They need fax machines. They need Internet access, funds to duplicate materials, and funds to keep the vigilantes from beating them up. And if you don't provide them funds, then the demonstrations are going to peter out."
But material backing for the protesters is a sensitive issue.
The State Department insists it doesn't provide it. But at a briefing on 16 June, spokesman Richard Boucher appeared to suggest that might not be the case for other parts of the U.S. government.
"Certainly, from my vantage point here, I can tell you that all that we're involved in here is expressing our moral support, our rhetorical support, our solidarity with the demonstrators," Boucher said.
Sick of Columbia University believes it is wrong for the United States to even suggest its endorsement for the opposition movement in Iran unless it is prepared to back it up with robust support. And with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sick does not believe Washington has the resources to follow through on supporting an upheaval in Iran.
He says Washington should remember when it encouraged Iraqi Shi'ites to rise up against former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War. When they did and Washington declined to support their insurgency, Hussein's regime instituted a harsh crackdown in which thousands were killed.
"I think we should be careful to avoid another situation where we are accused of having started something which we're not prepared to follow through on in which a lot of people get killed," Sick says.
Some analysts say U.S. financial support for the Iranian democracy movement could be counterproductive. They say such support allows Iranian hard-liners to justify their crackdown on dissent in the name of national unity against an external threat.
Still others believe that even if Washington does support the opposition, the Tehran regime is unlikely to fall over the next three years, by which time Iran is expected to have developed nuclear weapons. They say Washington should be prepared to launch a pre-emptive strike against any Iranian nuclear weapons facilities.
Meanwhile, U.S. pressure against Iran's nuclear program appears to be gaining strength. On 16 June, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as the European Union and Russia, called on Tehran to allow UN inspectors into the country to determine whether its nuclear facilities are purely for civilian use or, indeed, if they are involved in developing nuclear weapons.
Iran says it will not agree to stricter UN checks unless a ban on Tehran's access to nuclear technology is lifted.