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Amid rising tensions over Iran's nuclear program and renewed charges that it is sheltering senior al-Qaeda leaders, including the son of Osama bin Laden, a major international think tank is calling on the administration of President George W Bush to seriously engage Tehran rather than to seek confrontation with it.
In a new report entitled "Iran: Discontent and Disarray", the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) concludes that, despite continuing growth in popular unhappiness with Iran's conservative leadership, swift political change, let alone a popular insurrection as some US neo-conservatives have predicted, is highly unlikely.
Much more probable, on the other hand, is the rise of "conservative pragmatists", such as former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who have supported opening up to the West for economic reasons while continuing to resist far-reaching political reform.
"There should be no let-up in the world support for political reform and greater respect for human rights," said Robert Malley, ICG's Middle East program director who served as Middle East specialist on the National Security Council staff under former president Bill Clinton. In that respect, the report notes that the decision to award this year's Nobel Peace Prize to Shirin Ebadi, a human-rights lawyer, could be considered particularly helpful.
"But the regime is not likely to collapse soon, so there is no serious alternative to engaging it on urgent security matters," Malley went on. "And that engagement is going to have address, as well as everybody else's anxieties, Iran's own sense of strategic encirclement and nuclear disadvantage," he said.
Iran policy has been a major point of contention with the Bush administration virtually since it took power almost three years ago. On the one hand, the State Department, under Secretary of State Colin Powell, has supported continuing with the gradual detente policy promoted under Clinton. On the other, hawks based primarily in Vice President Dick Cheney's and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's offices have opposed engagement, arguing instead for a policy of isolation and confrontation.
The September 11 terrorist attacks marked the hawks' ascendancy within the administration. While contacts between Washington and Tehran - which haven't had direct diplomatic ties since the embassy hostage crisis 23 years ago - picked up sharply during Washington's military campaign in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, Iran's inclusion in the "axis of evil" described by Bush in his state of the union address in January 2002 resulted in an instant cooling of relations.
Still, the State Department maintained discreet contacts with the Iranian government until mid-May when US intelligence concluded that a series of al-Qaeda attacks carried out in Saudi Arabia that left some 35 people dead, including eight US nationals, were planned and possibly ordered in Iran by senior leaders of the group. As a result, the contacts were put on ice.
At the same time, tensions were rising over Iran's nuclear program which, according to Tehran itself, is designed exclusively for civilian use. The US, on the other hand, believes that Tehran intends to build a nuclear weapon and has accelerated its efforts to do so. The issue has moved quickly to the top of the agenda of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has given Tehran until the end of this month to explain a number of inconsistencies which its inspectors have recently discovered.
At the same time, the Pentagon has declined to disarm and dissolve a heavily-armed Iranian rebel group, the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), that is based in Iraq and was closely allied to the ousted regime of former president Saddam Hussein. Its failure to do so, despite the MEK's inclusion on the State Department's list of international terrorist groups, is seen in Tehran as evidence that Washington may be willing to use the group as a source of pressure against the Islamic Republic.
Meanwhile, a number of prominent neo-conservative thinkers close to the administration hawks have become increasingly outspoken in favor of providing covert aid to student opposition and exile movements, including one led by the son of the former shah, in hopes of setting off a popular insurrection.
Several of them, including Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank that enjoys strong influence in Rumsfeld's and Cheney's offices, have formed a "Coalition for Democracy in Iran", which is pressing Congress to approve a bill that would, among other things, provide some US$50 million in aid to opposition forces in Iran.
"We are now engaged in a regional struggle in the Middle East, and the Iranian tyrants are the keystone of the terror network," he wrote shortly after US troops took Baghdad in spring. "Far more than the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the defeat of the mullahcracy and the triumph of freedom in Tehran would be a truly historic event and an enormous blow to the terrorists."
The new ICG report confirms that students and others are indeed unhappy about the prospects for political change in light of the refusal of the conservative clerical establishment, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, to support the reform program sponsored by the twice-elected president, Mohamed Khatami, and his allies in the Iranian parliament, the majlis.
Popular frustrations are being taken out primarily on the reformers, who have been unable to carry out their programs, according to the report, which pointed to the huge drop in turnout in municipal elections earlier this year, which actually resulted in major gains by conservative politicians.
The problem, however, is that this frustration is turning more to political apathy. "Student protests persist, but they remain contained; most of the public is reluctant to challenge the state security services directly, sensing both that the regime would not hesitate to resort to violence and that, for the time being at least, there is no readily available credible political alternative."
Thus, "international policy-makers need to recognize that internal paralysis is a far more probable outcome than radical change," the report concludes.
In this context, according to the ICG, it makes sense for the West to take advantage of any opening by the regime to economic reform, as well as engage directly, as Europe has for some time, in critical issues, including security. "Such contacts need to be encouraged and expanded," the report says, "as they ultimately help to open up Iran's political space."
"The need is to strengthen Iran's civil society, and that can best be done not by isolating the country but by maximizing economic and cultural contacts while continuing to urge political reform and more respect for human rights," according to ICG analyst Karim Sadjadpour.
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