A Persian gulf

July 22, 2004

THE 9/11 commission reports that some of the hijackers from the 2001 attacks crossed in and out of Iran on their way to al-Qaida encampments in Afghanistan, with the apparent connivance of Iranian border officials. It's unlikely, nevertheless, that there was any direct Iranian involvement in Sept. 11. Not impossible, but unlikely.

Even so, the news should serve to focus attention on U.S. policy toward Iran, a country that has been shown to sponsor terrorism (as far away as Argentina), is situated on the strategic Persian Gulf, is sandwiched between American military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is ruled by an Islamic theocracy that for 25 years has considered America an enemy.

There's just one hitch -- the United States has no policy toward Iran. Yes, President Bush included it in the "axis of evil," but beyond that, Washington has been mostly hoping that the regime would just go away.

That won't happen. America has ostracized Iran for a quarter of a century, to little effect. A peaceful and complicated struggle has been taking place there for years, but those who support democratic reforms and an opening to the world are losing the fight. The mullahs have the upper hand, and in recent months it has become very clear that they are pursuing a nuclear weapons program. The time for wishful thinking on America's part is fast running out. The time for doing something has arrived.

War, or the threat of war, is not in any way the answer. The U.S. military is bogged down in an increasingly unpopular conflict in Iraq, and it is inconceivable that that conflict could be expanded successfully or legitimately eastward into Iran. "Surgical" bombing of Iranian nuclear sites would likely hit the wrong targets and certainly serve to unite all of Iran against America.

The Council on Foreign Relations suggested this week that the United States must therefore engage with Tehran. This makes a tremendous amount of sense, if it can be done level-headedly. The point is not to chase after sweeping agreements that would solve all problems, but to deal with specific topics where mutual interests may converge. Afghan stability is an obvious place to start. Some have suggested that it would be useful for Washington to invite all of Iraq's immediate neighbors to a security conference. The United States should at the same time push Tehran for more information on al-Qaida operatives held by Iran. Openings on these fronts would make it easier to recruit Russian assistance and engage Iran on the nuclear question.

Would this betray the cause of democracy? Far from it. The United States was always careful to maintain relations with the Soviet Union through the dark years of the Cold War, even during Vietnam. No one today regrets that strategy. It didn't stand in the way of the collapse of communism.

Now the threat to this country comes packaged as fanaticism and terrorism, and many of the roads lead to Tehran. Diplomatic and economic sanctions have served to hinder American influence there. They no longer make any sense, if they ever did.

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