Anti-Iran sentiment hardening fast

Critics in Congress finger Iranian ties to Al Qaeda and influence in Iraq as cause for a tougher approach.

Iran's governing mullahs may feel uneasy at the prominent attention they are attracting in the US as the 9/11 investigations conclude.

But a bigger worry for them may well be the growing signs that the US Congress - even without the 9/11 reports of Iran's ties to Al Qaeda - is pressing for a tougher approach toward Tehran.

With US interests in a reformed Middle East as strong as ever - even with Saddam Hussein out of the picture - Iran is emerging as the new Satan for some forces in Washington. That is particularly true on Capitol Hill, where pro-Israel and anti-Iran hard-liners are calling for an Iran policy advocating regime change - much like what happened with Iraq in the late 1990s.

On the other side of the freshly roiling debate are promoters of engagement, including prominent figures who advocate dialogue to address the top two US concerns: state sponsorship of terrorism and nuclear-weapons proliferation. For them, the US must proceed from the reality that, especially with its hands still full in Iraq, forceful options (in particular, military intervention) are virtually nonexistent.

Even with the 9/11 reports and the prospect of various Iran-focused initiatives in Congress this fall, most experts foresee little actual movement until after the November elections. The angry rhetoric may ratchet up, they say, but even after the elections, a conflict-weary America is likely to probe the chances of dialogue.

"The question remains whether the Iranian state, given its very nature and the increasing influence of the conservatives, is able to respond to a call for dialogue," says Daniel Brumberg, an Iran expert at Georgetown University and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "But that's still the direction things will take no matter who wins [the US presidency] in November.

"Opponents on both sides will employ their capacities to undermine it," he adds, "but our military situation, conditions in the region, and the situation in Iraq will make it necessary."

One of three members of President Bush's "axis of evil" - North Korea remains in the club while Iraq has fallen out - Iran had inched away from its evil status for two reasons. Leaders deemed "reformers" had gained prominence in Tehran, and potential for cooperation seemed to bloom in the wake of the US removal of Iran's archenemy next door in Baghdad.

But hopes for improvement withered as Iran made clear its intentions to pursue a nuclear-power program with proliferation implications. Contacts between Tehran and Washington, which had picked up as the US sought Iran's cooperation on Iraq's post-Hussein evolution, were cut off last spring when the US decided Tehran was supporting radicalized and anti-American Shiite factions in Iraq.

Now the bipartisan 9/11 commission reports that Iran allowed at least eight of the Sept. 11 hijackers to transit through its territory on their way to their assignments. While commission members say they uncovered no signs of Iranian participation in the attacks, the findings prompted Bush this week to dust off a tough rhetorical stance towards Tehran, calling it a "totalitarian society ... I have long expressed my concerns about."

Yet supporters of dialogue argue that Iran is not a totalitarian regime - and that in recent elections, the country's hard- liners garnered more support as a budding youth-led reform movement faded. With prospects for political change weakened, the logic of dialogue with those in power grows, some say.

Tehran may even be signaling a desire to talk with Washington on issues of mutual interest, some analysts say. They point to Iran's extradition last week of Saudi Al Qaeda member Khaled al-Harbi as a possible feeler.

In a report this week, a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) task force co-chaired by former CIA director Robert Gates and former Carter national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski recommended a Nixon-to-China ap-proach to Iran.

Mr. Brzezinski notes that much of the American public and diplomatic community were skeptical of prospects for relations with China when President Nixon made his diplomatic move - yet Nixon set the stage for engagement with a global giant. "Recall that the statement of principles [the US and China initially signed on to] didn't solve any issues, but it pointed the way," he says.

And Mr. Gates notes that the presence of 140,000 US troops on Iran's western border has no doubt influenced Tehran's calculations for relations with the US.

Still, supporters of dialogue are running into growing resistance from others who say Iran's clear interference in Iraq - and its historic support of Islamic (and primarily anti-Israel) extremists - demand a tougher US policy. They point out, for example, that the US believes the Iran-backed Hezbollah supports the Jordanian Islamic extremist Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, who has been carrying out deadly acts against US forces and interests in Iraq.

"There are too many carrots here, but where are the sticks?" says Raymond Tanter, a national security official under Reagan. The US should threaten support for Iranian resistance groups including the Iraq-based Mujahideen-e-Kalq, he says.

The State Department only closed down the Mujahideen's Washington offices last year, but already it appears the issue of US support for the Iranian resistance will resurface later this summer.

The Senate is expected to take up a resolution calling for sanctions against Iran when it returns in September. But beyond that, some Senate Republicans plan to push for legislation on Iran modeled after the Iraq Liberation Act that would similarly call for regime change and financial support for resistance forces.

But the CFR task force concludes that the Tehran regime is "firmly entrenched," and joins other pro-engagement forces in recommending the very opposite - that the US should offer to press for the Mujahideen's full disbanding as a "carrot" to draw Tehran into dialogue.

Saying there are few signs of support among Iranians for the Mujahideen, Gates says, "It would be a tad awkward for us to support a group the State Department includes on the list of terrorist organizations."

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