Vice-President Dick Cheney hints that Israel might attack Iran. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calls the Islamic Republic an "outpost of tyranny" with a human rights record that should be "loathed." President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union address, emphatically tells Iranians "as you stand for your liberty, America stands with you." The reaction on the streets of Tehran? Ridicule. Bush "should sit down," goes one joke making the rounds; "he has been standing by us so long he must be getting tired."
"A Burning Hell"
With Washington long on rhetoric and short on action, it's no surprise the Bush team's threats to change Iran's regime and end its nuclear program are cowing few Iranians. Not only is the public dismissive but the nation's leaders are defiant. "Our nuclear centers cannot be destroyed," Hassan Rowhani, Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, boasted on Feb. 8. Two days later, President Mohammed Khatami vowed that Iran would become "a burning hell" for any attackers. Says Amir Mohebian, a conservative strategist: "The government has reached the conclusion that there's a very small chance of these threats being carried out."
That's a problem for the Bush Administration. The White House is betting that political change will transform Iran before Tehran has the capability to produce nukes, which Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld predicts is "some years off." According to sources inside and outside the government, the Bush team hopes that the largely pro-American Iranian public will oust the mullahs, whose economic policies can't cope with rising youth unemployment.
The problem with this strategy? It's based on "a heroic assumption that a new regime won't want nukes," concedes an Administration insider. In Iran there's a broad consensus in favor of the nuclear program, which the government insists is for peaceful energy purposes. The nuclear program is backed both by conservatives, who control the Parliament and are likely to win the presidency in May, and by reformists such as Khatami.
While waiting for a political overhaul, the Administration hopes the European-Iranian talks will manage to halt or slow down Iran's alleged nuclear weapons development. Yet the U.S. has refused to join talks that Britain, France, and Germany are conducting with Tehran. The Europeans want Iran to give up a uranium enrichment program and other activities that could lead to nuclear weapons. The U.S. wants no reactors at all in Iran.
The Administration's reluctance to participate in these bargaining sessions leaves it with few cards to play. The way things are going, "the Iranians will drive a truck through the gaps" between the European and U.S. positions and "will emerge as eventual winners," predicts Geoffrey Kemp, an Iran expert at Washington's Nixon Center.
What's left? Rice says she would seek U.N. sanctions. But some combination of Chinese, Europeans, and Russians would probably torpedo any such action. The last resort would be military strikes by the U.S. or Israel. Experts think strikes would delay but not derail the program. With his Iran policy, Bush is clearly in a box -- and hasn't yet found a way out.
By Stan Crock in Washington, with Babak Pirouz in Tehran
Edited by Rose Brady