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Courting An Old Enemy

While Iraq is being targeted for a possible "regime change," Iran may be plunging toward political disintegration -- a huge, rarely discussed wild card in U.S. plans to unseat Saddam Hussein.

President Bush, in a departure from his "axis of evil" condemnations, has offered Iran an olive branch of sorts. "As Iran's people move towards a future defined by greater freedom, greater tolerance, they will have no better friend than the United States of America," he told the Iranian people in a written statement.

Iran's government-controlled broadcast media quickly denounced Bush's statement, accusing him of "shedding crocodile tears," while the conservative clergy and the reformist President Mohammad Khatami condemned the president's "meddling."

Both the overture and the rejections, however, were meant strictly for public consumption. Washington continues back-channel contacts with the Iranian government, including with representatives of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Guardian Council, whom Bush has branded as "unelected leaders." (They are in fact selected by the Assembly of Experts, which is an elected body.)

Reports indicate that envoys from both countries have met confidentially to examine Iran's role in the Pentagon's plan for the possible overthrow of Hussein. The Iraqi leader initiated a devastating eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s and is loathed by most Iranians.

Iran's ruling clergy, of course, has no choice but to join the chorus of opposition to a possible American invasion of Iraq. And the reform-minded Khatami recently charged Bush with "misusing" Sept. 11 to "create an atmosphere of war."

The clergy vehemently opposed the bombing of Afghanistan, yet gave a green light for Iran to play a key role in creating the post-Taliban regime. In exchange, the United States assured Iranians that Mohammad Zaher Shah would not be restored to his former position as the king. Iranian negotiators were particularly concerned with Zaher Shah, since his rule would have set a precedent for the restoration of the Iranian monarchy.

While Iraq is being targeted by many in Washington, D.C., Iran is plunging toward greater domestic instability. Ayatollah Jalal-al-Din Taheri, a stalwart of the Islamic revolution, recently resigned from his influential position as Isfahan's prayer leader in protest of the country's rampant poverty, political repression and financial corruption. His resignation coincided with student demonstrations at Tehran University, three years after similar protests ended in bloody police action. Signs of unrest are everywhere as the standard of living continues its downward spiral.

Young, progressive Iranians, counting on their huge demographic edge to emerge as ultimate political victors, have consistently avoided violence. The dominant clergy, however, is increasingly using special forces, plainclothes operatives and even militiamen from Lebanon to crack down on the opposition, triggering the possibility of another violent uprising.

The last thing Iran needs is another revolution to send tanks to the streets and bodies to the morgue. The gradual move toward a civil society, rocky as it has been, has served Iran well and should be encouraged by Washington through practical measures.

The last thing the Bush administration should risk is the possibility of American troops on Iraqi soil while Iran next door unravels.

Indeed, the Bush administration should put its money where its mouth is if it wants to be a real friend to Iran. Bush should publicly offer to lift sanctions against the country and support its entry into the World Trade Organization (blocked recently by the United States and Israel) if the ruling clergy puts its house in order by ridding the government of corrupt officials and tolerating dissent.

In response to Ayatollah Taheri's resignation, Ayatollah Khamenei said, "I also have been saying for several years that we have to mobilize all possible means to fight poverty and corruption." To put it in Iranian terms, it's high time for Khamenei to bring to the house the lamp he donates only to the mosque.

Despite a virulently anti-American facade, Iranians know very well that they can repair neither their economy nor their global image in absence of constructive relationships with the United States. America, too, needs Iran to protect its considerable oil and geopolitical interests in the world's most volatile region.

A native of Iran, Behrouz Saba is writing a memoir of his introduction to America in the 1960s as a foreign student at Monterey Peninsula College.

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