Diplomacy is best option with Iran

George Bush is learning that he must use different tactics of varying subtlety as he positions the American megapower to deal with problems around the world.

In Afghanistan, it was regime removal. Knock out the Taliban and Al Qaeda and let freedom flourish.

In Iraq, it was regime destruction. Destroy the Saddam Hussein regime and replace it, at least initially, with American control.

In the Palestinian- Israeli imbroglio, it is regime change in the case of the Palestinians - freezing out Yasser Arafat and replacing him with Mahmoud Abbas. It is regime nudging in the case of Israel - nudging Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to a more cooperative position than he has ever been known to embrace.

In North Korea, where the compass has been swinging between diplomacy and war, it's now looking like a US demand for regime reform from within. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz is floating the concept of China's example: How a failed communist state can reform without collapsing.

In the case of European allies, it is regime reward or regime retribution. Roses for Poland. For France, protestations of tough love but actually a raspberry. For Germany, a little time in the freezer. For Russia, well, Mr. Bush and President Vladimir Putin look like a couple of good ol' Texas boys making up after a wobbly Saturday night punch-up.

Which brings us to Iran, whose regime seems to have the Bush administration in a quandary. That quandary is exemplified by US indecision over the status of the People's Mujahideen, an Iranian resistance group operating from Iraq. It has been bombed and disarmed by the US, but it is now apparently finding favor from the US military although still listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization.

Iran is no friend of the US. Some hard-liners in the Bush administration are tempted to end its mischief by military means. The US did it in Iraq, why not in Iran?

But there are several reasons why this is not a good idea.

First, Bush faces a reelection campaign that, if it is to be successful, could do without the burden of occupying a new country of 65 million people with a long history of resentment against foreign invaders.

Second, the failure so far to find weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda in Iraq has produced credibility problems for the administration with the American public. It might undermine support for an assault on Iran justified on the same grounds. This does not mean that Americans have not cheered the demise of Saddam Hussein's wretched regime. It does mean that some of the reasons advanced to justify the regime's overthrow now seem less credible. Reasons for invading Iran would get sharper scrutiny.

Third, while the military campaign against Hussein was brilliant, the postwar economic and political reconstruction of Iraq so far is not. The US has much yet to do in Afghanistan, and a lot more to do in Iraq, before seeking a new venture of such magnitude in Iran.

Fourth, a US military adventure in Iran at this time would have an unsettling effect on the rest of the Islamic world and particularly on the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations. Though not an Arab country, Iran is a Muslim country. Its occupation by the US would further impair the trust of Arabs that Bush seeks.

Fifth, while there is much discontent in Iran with the influence of conservative clerics, its people have not been subjected to the brutal torture that terrorized Iraqis. Some experts believe the Islamic revolution is tottering toward an end as a new generation of Iranians questions its legitimacy. This generation may yet do a better job of reforming its government than would the US Marines.

America's three reasonable requirements from Iran are that it not support terror, not build threatening weapons, and not subvert Iraq's teetering movement toward democracy.

Vigorous diplomacy should put these requirements front and center with the Iranian regime.

Vigorous public diplomacy should be brought to bear upon the 20-year-olds who are Iran's best hope for constructive change. A US-stimulated robust economy and movement toward democracy in neighboring Iraq would encourage them. A US-brokered peace deal between Palestinians and Israelis would help even more.

Iran's leaders can be under no illusions about the awesome military strength recently displayed by the US in Iraq. The close availability of that strength should be an incentive for Iran to respond to diplomacy so that the US doesn't have to use force.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor who won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

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