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Pushing Iran risks a backlash

Proponents of pre-emptive action against Iran see regime change as the only way to guarantee a nuclear-armed Iran never emerges. But the threat of outside intervention could backfire badly. Analysis.
/ Source: Special to MSNBC

A new push to win access to Iran’s nuclear facilities begins Wednesday as the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency visits Tehran. Even if IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei gains unfettered access, the debate within the U.S. administration over how to deal with Iran will continue. Proponents of pre-emptive action see regime change as the preferred way to guarantee a nuclear-armed Iran never emerges. But the threat of outside intervention could backfire badly, entrenching hard-liners and accelerating the development of Iran’s weapons program.

Over the past month, Iran’s indigenous reform movement has gained momentum, with thousands of civilians and students taking to the streets to demand more freedoms and express dissatisfaction with the country’s stagnant economy. Protests have spread from Tehran across the country.

As in 1999, vigilante groups responded by beating demonstrators and raiding college dormitories to hunt down activists. These vigilantes view democratic reform as a threat to the regime, which has ruled the country since the 1979 revolution and which is increasingly at odds with the reformist president and parliament elected in 1997.

It is too early to predict the outcome of this latest skirmish over Iran’s domestic future, but the breadth of protests has caught even supporters of reform by surprise.

While deep divisions exist in Iran’s leadership over democratic reform, the mullahs and politicians who run the country closed ranks in accusing the Bush administration and Iranian exiles of fomenting protests.


The united front presented on the question of foreign interference in Iran’s internal debate underscores the need for Washington to carefully calibrate its approach. With Saddam Hussein toppled and U.S. troops in Iraq, even pro-reform politicians believe that the appearance of U.S. meddling in Iran may be used to discredit the reform process.

Iran’s suspicion of outsiders runs deep. The Safavid and Qajar dynasties that ruled Persia for much of the last millennium were undermined by clerics claiming that the ruling families had allowed “non-believers” to dominate the country.

More recently, Ayatollah Khomeini rallied the masses to his side in 1979 by denouncing the shah for delivering Iran into the hands of America.


Iran is once again caught between two seemingly incompatible sets of ideas: one Western and the other Islamic. Reformers believe that the powers of the state are derived from the people and that all citizens should enjoy equal rights before the law. This approach has found resonance with most Iranians, particularly the country’s youth. Reformers received more than 70 percent of the vote in Iran’s last four elections. However, conservatives reject any measure that they believe is at variance with the sacred laws of Islam.

While the Bush administration sympathizes with Iranians “asking to join the modern world,” it must be careful not to drown out the voices of the Iranian people or adopt overly contentious pressure tactics, which may backfire. Exiles must also maintain a guarded profile. Many Iranians defy the ban on satellite dishes and watch television programming produced by exile groups. There is a fine line between reporting news and using the media to manipulate events.

Dissatisfied with their country’s progress, Iranians are taking it on themselves to demand political and economic reform. If Iran is indeed approaching a tipping point, the process of change must arise from within the country and proceed in a way and at a pace determined by Iranians. Efforts to fan unrest could backfire and discredit indigenous reformers.


Based on last month’s findings that Iran had not fully disclosed its procurement activities, the IAEA will conduct an investigation to assess whether Iran’s nuclear program constitutes a covert effort to develop nuclear weapons.

If Iran is found to have violated its treaty obligations, the matter will be referred to the U.N. Security Council, which will consider sanctions. U.S. pressure already has borne some diplomatic fruit:

Russia, which has supplied Tehran with much of its civilian reactor technology, is stepping up the pressure on Tehran to sign the optional protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty allowing unannounced inspections.

A Japanese-backed consortium recently suspended a $2 billion deal aimed at developing the Azadegan oil field in southwest Iran to show its concern about Iran’s intentions.

The European Union has also threatened to suspend talks for most-favored nation trade status, something Tehran wants badly.

Proponents of a pre-emptive strike by the United States against Iran’s Natanz and Bushehr nuclear facilities argue the stakes are too high to rely on diplomacy. They also point to the 1982 Israeli strike on Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak as an example of how tough decisions are borne out in the long run.

But military action would have a disastrous effect by galvanizing hard-liners and discrediting Iranian proponents of transparency and reform. Iran’s reformers need time to win the debate inside the nation. A more transparent regime could be counted on to abide by international agreements, such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

David L. Phillips is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.