WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is reported to be considering "destabilizing" - in other words, covertly overthrowing - the Iranian government because of its suspected ties to Al Qaeda terrorist groups. This would be precisely the wrong thing for the United States to do in Iran. If we are to meddle in Iran at all, our efforts ought to be directed against the Islamic clergy and not the elected politicians.
Overthrowing the wrong government would be consistent with a long record by the US, going back to the aftermath of World War II. We paid street mobs to demonstrate against Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh after he nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Mossadegh went into exile and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi returned.
This was not all bad. For 26 years, the shah provided a generally pro-American government. He also ran an efficient and vicious secret police, but there was stability in the Persian Gulf. The Shah made huge arms purchases. He sold oil to Israel. He promoted Westernization. Young women wore blue jeans on the streets; movies were well-attended, boys and girls held hands in public. All of this was distasteful to conservative Islamist elements, but the US was riding high, and the CIA was on a roll.
After 26 years, the discontent that had been accumulating among the radical Islamic clergy boiled over, and in 1979, the shah was driven from power. A radical Islamic government took over and imposed strict religious guidelines on the country. When the government finally permitted elections, a moderate became president, but under close control. This is the faction we ought to be trying to strengthen.
The year after Mossadegh departed Iran, the US became alarmed by a reformist elected government in Guatemala, headed by Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. American business, especially the United Fruit Company, feared Arbenz was leaning toward nationalization. Worse, Arbenz clandestinely imported arms from the Soviet bloc.
So, following the example of Iran, the CIA arranged for his overthrow, this time with an invasion of exiles from neighboring Honduras. The country has been involved in civil war ever since.
The US was faced with further choices with the rise to power in Cuba of Fidel Castro, another reformer, but with even closer ties to the Soviet bloc. The CIA used Guatemala as a base to train a group of Cuban exiles, and it used Nicaragua as a base from which to launch them in an invasion of Cuba, but this affair was a dismal failure. One Washington critic remarked that the CIA had neglected to take into account that, unlike Guatemala and Iran, Cuba was surrounded by water.
More bad choices followed. Longtime dictatorial ruler Rafael Trujillo, assassinated in the Dominican Republic in 1961, was succeeded by a democratic government headed by Juan Bosch. Bosch was heavily backed by the CIA, a good choice by the US. But when Bosch in turn was overthrown, President Johnson sent US military forces to restore order and to guard - he said - against a communist takeover.
To document the communist danger, Johnson asked the CIA for evidence. When the CIA replied that it had none, Johnson asked the FBI. Then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover produced Communists. Some observers at the time suspected this was done with fabricated evidence. (Could this be a precedent for finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?)
There followed the indigenous overthrow of the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua. The rebels called themselves Sandinistas after a local hero named Cesar Augusto Sandino, who had conducted a guerrilla war against the US Marine occupation during the 1920s and 1930s - a much earlier bad choice.
The Reagan administration carried its obsession with the Sandinistas so far that Congress was driven to outlaw aid to their opponents, the contras. This developed into the Iran-contra affair. Administration efforts to evade the legal ban on aid to the contras, or at least to disguise violations of it, eventually drew in most of Central America and extended to Iran, Israel, and Korea.
Especially since Sept. 11, puzzled Americans have been asking, "Why do they hate us?"
The answer is, they don't; what they hate is the American government. The government that preaches help for the underdog, or the president who preaches compassionate conservatism, is not the government they see helping the powerful, or the president they hear consoling the destitute.
George W. Bush likes to ask, "What's the right thing to do?" But too often he doesn't do it.
• Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.