How to challenge Iran's militancy without using arms

Iran is not Al Qaeda. We need to isolate the ruling elite and radical clerics by reaching out to the Iranian people directly.

There have been persistent rumors in Washington that President Bush does not want to leave office without "doing something" about Iran. Even more alarming, there have been rumors that Mr. Bush has solicited a green light from Russian President Vladimir Putin for Israel to "do something" about Iran.

One of the central problems with the Bush administration is that it thinks military first and sometimes military only – with disastrous results for America. Though military action is an option, the consequences of the United States or Israel attacking Iran would be catastrophic.

Fortunately, the American people do not want this to happen. Only 10 percent approve of a military confrontation with Iran, according to a CBS/New York Times poll in March, and most worry about America's troubled relationship with the Muslim world. A large majority are concerned that the Iraq war is destroying America's international reputation. They do not want to make matters worse.

Iran is not Al Qaeda. It is a complex society that combines clerical rule, populism, and a series of power groups. The most dangerous are the Revolutionary Guard, composed of a powerful and wealthy military elite, whose influence can only continue if the world isolates Iran.

Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also depends on the populist appeal of confrontation with the West – bolstered recently by the Bush administration's labeling of the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. The Achilles' heel is that Mr. Ahmadinejad's popular appeal only works when the West is unpopular, and nothing could be more unpopular to Iranians than a US-inspired attack. An external attack often shifts public opinion to the hard right.

The Revolutionary Guard's new terrorist label, which fetters more than frees US diplomacy efforts, should not offer a convenient excuse for further disengagement. Rather, the perfect way to isolate the Revolutionary Guard, the Iranian president, and the radical clerics, is to invite the Iranian people into an ever more hopeful relationship with the West. The time for doing this is perfect. President Ahmadinejad has failed to deliver on his campaign promises of better consumer prices. Iranians are also distressed by unprecedented oil rationing.

Some in Washington might say that this is attributable to US-led sanctions, though it is worth noting that America's allies are resisting and perhaps with good reason. Unilateral sanctions have not proved to be an effective way to change a country's behavior. First, according to a recent study by David Lektzian of Texas Tech University and Christopher Sprecher of Texas A&M University, sanctions actually make it far more likely that two states will meet on the battlefield. Out of 200 cases studied, military conflicts were six times more likely to occur when sanctions were in place. Second, as in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the weight of sanctions would burden the Iranian regime less than it would the Iranian people.

In a recent poll by Terror Free Tomorrow, a nonprofit research group that develops strategies to counter terrorism, 70 percent of Iranians thought that normal relations with the West should be a high priority, but only 29 percent thought nuclear energy should be, and an astonishing 61 percent disapproved of Ahmadinejad's government.

The internal vulnerabilities of Iran's ruling circles make this a perfect time to extend an olive branch to the people of Iran with a diplomatic initiative that involves economic incentives and development opportunities for the poor, the middle class, and the reformers. Multilateralism is a must if we want this to happen, because Europe, Russia, Japan, and others maintain good relations with Iran's business sector, the kind necessary in order to provide socioeconomic development assistance. If the Revolutionary Guard and the president block these gestures then "it is on their heads," and we will likely see them increasingly marginalized.

Admittedly, much of what we're prescribing dovetails with the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. We thought it appropriate to offer a reminder. The American people must tell their leaders to lead with a big stick, but peacefully, and with respect for a great civilization.

Marc Gopin is the James Laue Professor at George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and the director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution. Gregory Meeks is a Democrat who represents the Sixth District of New York in the House of Representatives and serves on the foreign affairs committee.

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