Back in the regime-change business

Promoting democracy alone won't help the US contain Iran's extremism.

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What with all the Cheney hullabaloo, you might not have noticed, but it looks as though the US government is getting back into the "regime change" business.

Regime change typically begins with a process of fomenting disaffection, encouraging people to turn against their government. The United States tried it a couple of times in Iraq. The Pentagon poured millions of dollars into backing exile groups with connections in Iraq. A lot of it went to the Iraqi National Congress, based in London, headed by Ahmed Chalabi. It didn't work. In the end, the Pentagon had to change the Iraqi regime the old-fashioned way - by invasion. And today it is the insurgency that is fighting for regime change.

Now, the Bush administration, viewing alarming developments in Iran and the possible development of a nuclear bomb, is squaring off for another effort at regime change, but it is no longer calling it that. The theory is that if Iran does eventually succeed in developing a nuclear weapon, it would be helpful if the government wielding that weapon were a bit friendlier. The administration is also concerned about Iran's taking the lead in bankrolling a Palestinian Hamas government.

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The project to penetrate Iran surfaced when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice applied to Congress for $75 million on top of an initial $10 million. She told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the idea was to confront the extremist policies of the Iranian regime and support the aspirations of the Iranian people for freedom. Money would be provided to Iranian labor unions and an around-the-clock broadcast service in Farsi would be inaugurated.

The secretary is on a tour of Arab countries in the Middle East this week to enlist their support in trying to contain Iran. The Bush administration believes - based on what, I do not know - that there is a substantial underground opposition to the radical new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in spite of his landslide election victory. Some American officials believe that Mr. Ahmadinejad's intemperate statements, like his threat to wipe Israel off the map, have not gone down well at home.

But, meanwhile, the extremist government in Tehran presses on with its nuclear plans. The talks this week in Moscow about enriching uranium for Iran in Russia have apparently gone nowhere, and they look more and more like a stalling tactic.

The Bush administration will need something tougher than promoting democracy in Iran if the regime is to be contained.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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