On April 1, 2004, Iran's Islamic Republic turned 25. But, more than a quarter-century after the Islamic Revolution, U.S. policy remains in flux. After three years of interagency wrangling, there is still no agreement on a National Security Presidential Directive governing U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic.
The result is policy chaos. One year after President Bush labeled Iran part of the "Axis of Evil," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called Iran a "democracy." Current and former National Security Council officials engage not only with diplomats, but also with members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
A bipartisan group of senators and congressmen led by Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, has dined with Mohammad-Javad Zarif, Iran's United Nations ambassador. In April 2004, Mr. Specter explained, "We need to establish a dialogue with Iran...We need to have a line of communication to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons." Other Republicans agree, arguing that dialogue with Tehran will foster a move toward human rights and democracy. Unfortunately, engagement comes at a cost both to U.S. national security and to Iran's internal reform. The Islamic Republic uses the space created by engagement to further its weapons program and demoralize democrats.
The European Union has engaged with Iran for more than a decade, doubling bilateral trade. Iran's hardliners have used their access to bolster Tehran's weapons of mass destruction programs. The Islamic Republic has incorporated components purchased from Swiss, German, Italian and Spanish firms into its biological weapons program. In March 2000, the Islamic Republic contracted with the German company Salzgitter Anlagenbau to build a 1,450 kilogram-per-hour phosgene generator. When weaponized, phosgene causes fatal lung damage.
Iran's nuclear program has also benefited. Michael Eisenstadt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in his 1998 study, "Iranian Military Power: Capabilities and Intentions," that, in addition to overt Russian assistance, Iranian government front companies purchased centrifuges and calutrons from Switzerland and Germany. In March 2001, President Mohammad Khatami signed a $7 billion deal to buy weapons from Russia. A year later, Mr. Khatami boasted, "Today our army is one of the most powerful in the world...It has become self-sufficient, and is on the road to further development."
Reform has withered as dialogue has legitimized the Islamic Republic. Since Mr. Khatami's 1997 call for a "Dialogue of Civilizations," capital punishment has doubled, the Islamic Republic has shuttered 80 newspapers, banned private internet service providers, seized thousands of satellite dishes and staged the largest trial of dissidents since the Islamic Revolution. On April 13, 2004, Mr. Khatami formally withdrew two reform bills from Iran's parliament, even as U.S. and British officials sat down with Iranian colleagues to discuss Iraq. Dialogue proponents argue that engagement encourages internal reformers, but their partners are often insincere.
During his tenure as minister of culture, for example, Mr. Khatami himself banned more than 600 books and 90 publications. An August 2002 telephone survey (randomized by exchange) of 505 Tehran residents found that only 33 percent believed Mr. Khatami had delivered on his reformist promises. On May 9, 2004, a judge in the Western Iranian town of Hamadan suggested that the United Nations Human Rights Commission "should pray for God's forgiveness for not issuing any resolution against Iran." Family members of imprisoned dissidents say that Iranian interrogators use published reports of U.S.-Iranian dialogue to deflate and demoralize political prisoners.
Iranians are increasingly becoming convinced that reform cannot resolve fundamental problems in the Islamic Republic's ideology. Many Iranians have concluded that elections are meaningless. Iranians visiting Iraq in the wake of the February parliamentary elections estimated voter turn-out to be no more than 10 percent in many districts. In 1953 and 1979, Washington supported an unpopular Iranian government against the will of the people. The United States should not make the same mistake three times. Moral clarity has its rewards. There is a direct correlation between President Bush's condemnation of the Iranian regime and the frequency of pro-democracy demonstrations in Iran.
Dialogue with Iran also comes at a tremendous cost in Iraq. Iranian intentions are belied by the appointment of Hassan Kazemi Qomi to be their charge d'affaires in Baghdad. Mr. Kazemi is not a diplomat, but rather a member of the Qods Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps dedicated to exporting the revolution. Asking Iranian assistance to quell Iraqi unrest is akin to asking an arsonist to extinguish a fire. Dialogue legitimizes Iranian activities that have led to the death of American servicemen. An April 2004 Italian military intelligence report submitted to the Italian parliament concluded that the Qods Force is subsidizing firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Iraqi insurgents to the tune of approximately $70 million monthly. Arabic newspapers report that captured Iranian operatives in British custody have supported the Italian accusations as have Iranian journalists.
Nevertheless, Bush administration National Security Council officials have recently engaged Iranian counterparts in Iraq. Iranian journalist Ardeshir Moaveni suggested discussions focused on trading Iranian assistance in ending the Shia uprising in exchange for mitigation of U.S. pressure on Iran's nuclear program.
Herein lays the trouble: The Islamic Republic is nearing nuclear weapons capability. Not only will this shift the strategic balance in the Middle East, but it will also seal any hope for meaningful reform. A nuclear capable Iran needs not fear retaliation if it cracks down on its own dissidents or sponsors terrorist attacks against Americans and our allies. Time is ticking. Engagement, however well-intentioned, may allow Iran to run out the clock.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.