Persian Puzzles By Bret Stephens

The Wall Street Journal


Persian Puzzles
June 19, 2007; Page A16

'Neo-Cons to plot Iran strategy amid Caribbean luxury." Thus did an Internet sleuth describe a conference convened late last month in the Bahamas by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies -- a think tank so sinisterly right-wing that its board of advisers includes Donna Brazile and Chuck Schumer.

Had our sleuth been at the conference, he might have been disappointed to find that nothing by way of bombing coordinates for the pending attack on Iran's nuclear installations were presented. On the contrary, the 30 or so conferees -- Iranian-born intellectuals, Middle East scholars, journalists and former officials from Democratic and Republican administrations and foreign governments -- could agree on little other than that Iran is a uniquely aggressive regime intent on becoming the predominant power in the Middle East. As to how best to confront it, the conference raised more questions than it answered. Here's a partial list:

• Do Iranians view the nuclear program as a national project or as an instrument for the regime to consolidate its unpopular rule?

"Whatever we say, whatever we do, let us take care not to give the regime the gift of Iranian patriotism," says one of the conferees, speaking under "Chatham House rules," which forbid personal attributions. Iran, he notes, has "a strong sense of identity that in many situations outweighs every other consideration." Another conferee recalls that in 1980, former members of the Shah's cabinet, who might have been hanged had they stayed in Tehran, begged Western countries to "help Khomeini" once the Iran-Iraq War began.

In other words, while the West may think that economic sanctions or military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities would be welcomed by Iranians as a blow against the regime they detest, nationalist fervor might outweigh political considerations. Or maybe not. "When [Argentine dictator Leopoldo] Galtieri took the Falklands, he was celebrated as a hero, and when he lost them he was lynched," notes one panelist. "The people will blame the government for having pursued something they could not defend."

• Can economic sanctions have any effect on the regime's nuclear plans?

Iran's nuclear diplomacy has been "a masterpiece," says one participant. "They have cleverly given the impression there is a grain of hope to talking. Gaining time [for their nuclear program] has been the name of the game. They are going to have a nuclear capability whether the West wants it or not."

Not so, say others: "Iran is not North Korea and Iranians pride themselves on being integrated in the international economy." As a result, the U.S. can apply powerful levers against Iranian financial institutions and companies, many of which fund the activities of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. One example is Khatam ul-Anbia, an engineering firm controlled by the Revolutionary Guards that is likely to be named in the next round of U.N. sanctions. Given that the Revolutionary Guards mainly funds itself through no-bid contracts, sanctioning the firm and others like it would undermine the corps's finances. It would also be popular with the politically influential merchant class, which increasingly finds itself shut out by the current regime and its priorities.

• Do we undercut Iran's pro-democracy activists by giving them verbal encouragement?

There is agreement at the conference that "the Iranian people are the only ally the West has against the regime." There is less agreement on how best to support or engage them.

One problem is the nature of the pro-democracy movement itself: "A lot of chiefs and not many followers," says a participant, adding that "when you push these groups they have no real idea what they want to do." That isn't to say that the movement will remain weak and rudderless forever. But is it helped when an American president enlists himself in its cause? According to one school of thought, U.S. support provides a ready excuse for the regime to treat even its mildest critics as spies, as the regime is now doing in the case of Iranian-American scholar Halah Esfandiari. Others disagree: "When the U.S. tells the activists 'we stand with you,' it makes the regime think twice about what it does. The problem comes when this repeats itself and nothing comes of it. The U.S. loses credibility."

• Do we undercut the pro-democracy movement when we negotiate with the regime?

According to one view, negotiations aren't an option but a necessity, whatever the consequences for Iranian activists. "Sitting with [the Iranians] in the context of Iraq demonstrates to the Europeans we're not the frothing-at-the-mouth people they think we are," says one participant. It should also be possible to push diplomacy and democracy at the same time, as the West did with the Soviet Union through the Helsinki Accords.

Then again, "the last time the Europeans discussed human rights with Iran was more than two years ago," notes one participant. "The regime sees [diplomatic overtures] as a sign of weakness," says another. "They spin this to say 'the Americans are giving up on you.'"

• Can we negotiate with Iran over Iraq?

Yes, says one: "The Iranians don't want Iraq to break up; they don't want a civil war." Says another: "[Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei wants to have a major role in resolving the problem," in order to avoid a military confrontation with the U.S. Others are less sanguine: "They'd be delighted to help us get out of Iraq -- provided it represents a clear and unequivocal defeat for the U.S."

• Are there meaningful differences within the regime that Western diplomacy can exploit?

Consider the case of Ms. Esfandiari: A participant points out that she was charged with treason the very day U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker sat down with his Iranian counterparts in Baghdad. According to one view, the two events are probably unrelated. According to another, pressing charges was an attempt by hardliners within the regime to undermine efforts by moderates seeking detente with the U.S. According to a third view, it represents a coordinated strategy, directed personally by the Ayatollah Khamenei, the purpose of which is to show that the regime alone will deal with the U.S. and that interloping civil society types like Ms. Esfandiari are not welcome.

Getting the policy right on Iran is an urgent national priority. Asking the right questions must be the first order of business.

• Write to bstephens@wsj.com1.

URL for this article: