THE United States, and indeed the West in general, have good cause to be concerned about the government of Iran.
Accepting few norms of international behavior, except when they suit its purposes, the Iranian government has a record of illegal activity that goes back to the 1979 seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran, an action led by several men who are now highly placed government officials. It sponsors and shelters terrorist groups; pronounces death sentences on book authors; is suspected of flooding the world with bogus US $100 bills printed at its official mint; and mistreats ethnic and religious minorities such as Bahais or Armenian Christians.
Iran's strategic importance has led US administrations since Dwight Eisenhower's into actions that calmer heads should have quashed before they started. The overthrow of Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq in 1953, the disastrous hostage-rescue attempt in 1979, and the Iran-contra affair are the best known. America's fixation with what the mullahs may be up to next is rivaled perhaps only by its fixation with Fidel Castro's Cuba.
In that fine tradition, Washington is about to embark on a covert CIA operation against Iran whose cover is already blown and whose chances of success are nil. Press reports for months have indicated that House Speaker Newt Gingrich is backing an $18 million operation to change the Iranian government. The latest report, in the Jan. 26 New York Times, asserts that the CIA has cold feet: The Iranian government knows about the operation and is mounting a $20 million dollar effort to counter it. In retaliation, it has also sentenced to death several men convicted of spying for the US.
The idea that the CIA can go into a country as sophisticated and nationalistic as Iran and engineer a coup or other government shift should have been discredited long ago. Such operations are not only fraught with danger, they have a very unpleasant way of backfiring, leaving the US strategic position worse off than before and fomenting retaliatory terrorism.
President Clinton and Director of Central Intelligence John Deutsch should halt this effort immediately. Instead, the US should limit itself to overt diplomatic pressure, such as trade sanctions and persuasion of allies, in its dealings with Iran.
The mullahs' mismanagement of their country's economy will eventually cause either Iranian voters or another armed group to throw them out of power. The US can stay on its guard and try to hasten that day through legally recognized methods. Other than that, it will have to exercise a quality uncommon in American politics: patience.