Bush's Tough Talk on Iran Could Backfire

Instead of fomenting dissent, it may unite anti-U.S. factions

Beneath the domes of centuries-old mosques in the ancient Iranian city of Isfahan, the crowd of assembled protesters was more interested in buying colorful balloons and cake for their children than in screaming "Death to America!" Yet it was Feb. 11, the 23rd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. So scream they did--all over the country, in bigger crowds than usual this year. The public outburst was a direct reaction to President George W. Bush's State of the Union address, wherein he named Iran--along with Iraq and North Korea--as part of an "axis of evil" sponsoring terrorism and developing weapons of mass destruction.

There is little doubt in Iran that the Bush Administration's new policy toward the country is strengthening the position of hard-line mullahs and weakening that of reformist President Mohammed Khatami. "Whenever the U.S. decides to speak about Iran, it ends up benefiting the hard-liners," says Saiid Laylaz, a Tehran-based journalist close to the reformist camp. Bush's tough talk has prompted the rival factions leading Iran to unite in protest against the Administration. "This is the lowest point in U.S.-Iranian relations since the beginning of the revolution," Deputy Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told BusinessWeek.

Why is the Administration stepping up pressure on Iran, especially at a time when momentum is building for military action against Iraq's Saddam Hussein? Clearly, Bush was angry about reports that Iran was the source of the recent arms cache destined for the Palestinians but found in the Red Sea--an allegation Tehran denies. And the Administration has heard repeatedly from Israel that Iran is supplying arms to the Hezbollah in Lebanon and developing its own nuclear weapons.

Some pundits say Bush had to finger Iran and North Korea even if his first goal is to take on Iraq. Since there's little evidence Iraq was tied to September 11, the logic goes, Bush had to widen the war to include rogue nations suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction. He included Iran and North Korea so that his campaign would not look like an anti-Arab, anti-Islamic crusade. "It spreads the evil around," says Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional strategic programs at Washington's Nixon Center.

What's most surprising about Bush's strict new line on Iran, however, is that the President is suddenly abandoning reformist Khatami. Until now, the U.S. has joined European nations in the hope that Khatami could succeed in instilling democracy in Iran and opening the country more to the outside world. But conservative mullahs who control the judiciary and other key levers of power have blocked reforms. Now, well-placed sources in Washington say the Bush Administration is simply giving up. "Khatami is a spent force," says an Administration official.

Instead, the U.S. is quietly adopting a long-term strategy of regime change for Iran as well as Iraq. Bush is harking back to the Evil Empire days, when Ronald Reagan's words were said to have inspired dissidents behind the Iron Curtain. The Bush team hopes to exploit rising disenchantment with Iran's regime. Antigovernment sentiment was evident during recent soccer riots and a teachers' strike. The audience for Persian-language radio and TV broadcasts beamed in from the West is also expanding. "The Iranian revolution is losing its legitimacy," the U.S. official says.

This may be wishful thinking, especially if Bush's rhetoric ends up uniting factions under a nationalistic umbrella for more than a few months. "[Regime change in Iran] could be feasible [only] if it is intended as a long-term policy akin to the containment of the Soviet Union. We will have to wait three or four decades," says Shibley Telhami, an expert on the Middle East at Washington's Brookings Institution. In the meantime, he adds, a threatened Iran could try to speed up its development of nukes or other weapons.

So there are plenty of questions about Bush's "axis of evil" policy. Vice-President Dick Cheney is sure to hear them when he heads to 11 countries in the Middle East in mid-March. The apparent goal of the mission is to lay the groundwork for action against Saddam. Iran is no friend of the Iraqi strongman, but now Tehran has more reason to stir up trouble for Washington as the Bush Administration expands the war on terror.

By Rose Brady in New York, Stan Crock in Washington, and Haleh Anvari in Tehran

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