Toppling Tehran isn't a tea party

Iran's leaders, by renewing threats to Israel and restarting uranium enrichment, have made it easier to target them for "regime change." Little surprise then that President Bush asked Congress Wednesday to quickly approve much more money to create political dissent in Iran and to "support the aspirations of the Iranian people."

Last month, Mr. Bush spoke directly to the "citizens of Iran" in his State of the Union speech, telling them he would "rally the world" to prevent "a small clerical elite" from acquiring nuclear weapons and to keep it from "isolating and repressing its people." While not directly calling for regime change, he told Iranians: "We respect your right to choose your own future."

Trying to create an uprising in Iran like the recent ones in Ukraine or Georgia would be no easy task for the US, especially if it operates alone. And the blowback from Tehran could be dangerous. A similar attempt during the Clinton administration ended up with Iran supporting terrorist attacks on US interests. Iran can also cause trouble in Iraq with its influence over the majority Shiites.

The new money request to Congress is pretty mild, though. It calls for an increase in spending on democracy programs in Iran from $10 million to $85 million. And the administration wants to lift restrictions on direct funding of political dissidents, nongovernmental organizations, and labor unions. Much of the money would go to expand US satellite broadcasts of Farsi-language programs to 24 hours a day and improving Internet access for Iranians.

Such efforts are based on an assumption that Iran's grass-roots reform movement of the 1990s can be revived after suffering repression and internal splits over whether to work within Iran's flawed Constitution.

The best evidence of the public mood is that the regime had to bar 2,500 candidates from running in the heavily restricted elections of 2005. And in the first round of the presidential election, votes for all of the various reform candidates came to 17 million compared with 11 million for all the conservative candidates. In addition, about 20 million voters stayed away from the polls in quiet dissent.

Finding a Lech Walesa-type figure in Iran, who can lead a peaceful movement like Poland's Solidarity, is unlikely. Iran's long history of authoritarian regimes has left a culture that may not be able to sustain such necessary tolerance. Still, recent reformers have left their mark by inspiring women to take on more public roles.

US covert support for activists in Iran runs a danger of a further repression. And such support would be especially dangerous if it created paramilitary groups, like those used in Central America during the Reagan years to fight communists.

Trying to divide the clerics from the people, while also seeking UN economic sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program, is the best that Bush can do for now. He's dispatched his secretary of State to the region this week to find support for the "strategic challenge" posed by Iran. He's also working to bring Russia, China, India, and other powers to a consensus on standing up to Iran.

So far, Bush has US public opinion behind this effort. But he must tread carefully to avoid war, and thus the loss of that support.

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