Bush's shift on Iran


IT HAD NONE of the fanfare or splash of his "axis of evil" speech, but President Bush's little-publicized endorsement last month of pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran caused a stir in the Islamic republic. Mr. Bush's clear message to Iranian students, journalists and lawmakers who have been agitating for more freedoms was: You have "no better friend than the United States."

What remain unclear are the consequences for U.S. policy toward Iran. If the president's pitch signals a break with past attempts to work with President Mohammad Khatami, a moderate elected with overwhelming support by reformers, then what will replace those efforts? Does the administration really believe a presidential vote of confidence in the pro-democracy demonstrators can exacerbate tensions in Iran enough to provoke a revolt?

The latter seems doubtful given the power of the conservative clerics in Iran and the control the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, holds over the military and police. Already, intellectuals and journalists have felt the repercussions of Mr. Bush's speech -- they were arrested or their newspapers closed.

And yet it's obvious that the past U.S. policy of engagement has produced few, if any, results since Mr. Khatami's election in 1997. While Iran has offered some help recently in the president's war on terrorism, the country continues to bankroll terrorist organizations in the Mideast and elsewhere. Press freedoms have been mercilessly curtailed; dissidents and reform-minded journalists have been imprisoned repeatedly.

The president issued his support for the demonstrators July 12, days after thousands of Iranian students and pro-democracy reformers defied a ban on protests and clashed with police in Tehran. Mr. Bush issued only a written statement, which was beamed into Iran by the government-sponsored Voice of America. A strongly worded condemnation of the Islamic clerics in power, it sympathized with the Iranian people who "want the same freedoms, human rights and opportunities as people around the world."

As expected, Iran's top leaders condemned Mr. Bush's overture to the Iranian people as the Great Satan meddling in Iran's internal affairs.

The president's encouragement may have energized reformers in Iran, and some policy-makers believe that's all the Bush administration needs to do. They believe Iran's lagging economy, repressive regime and preponderance of youth in the population make change inevitable.

A "do nothing" approach to foreign policy is no substitute for the real thing. For Mr. Bush to truly affect the lives of Iran's citizens, he has to do more than talk. His administration could just sit and wait for the power of the people to explode, but then his policy-makers -- and not just his speechwriters -- had better be prepared for the day after the revolution.

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