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Nudge Iran’s regime over edge

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WASHINGTON — On his way back from a Moscow summit, President Nixon made an overnight stop in Tehran. The Shah, greeting the White House staff individually, asked if I was enjoying my stay. I said I wished I could go antique shopping in Ferdowsi Square, but we had to leave early next morning.

The Shah said imperiously to an aide, "Keep the shops open." And so, after the state dinner, a bunch of somewhat embarrassed Nixon aides found bleary-eyed Iranian shopkeepers awaiting us in downtown Tehran.

Then we heard shouting around the corner, and what seemed like shots. Our minders said the noise came from hooligans, so we shrugged it off. But before the decade was out, a tide of those demonstrators, conspiring with a network of mullahs, deposed the Shah and imposed a more malevolent dictatorship.

That's why I do not take lightly reports this week of student protests in Tehran and Tabriz, followed by the beating of demonstrators by supposed vigilantes. Only when satellite broadcasts about the beatings from Iranian exiles in Los Angeles aroused public opinion in Iran did the army belatedly restrain the government's club-wielding thugs.

Why didn't the ayatollahs order the protesters jailed? Why hasn't the theocratic regime rounded up the 250 intellectuals who recently dared to state that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was accountable to the people and not just to God?

The answer is that every segment of Iranian society is split. In labor, industrial workers fume at jobs lost to outside sanctions while oil workers bask in the sun of high oil prices. In the military, many air force and navy officers silently scorn the anti-secular allegiance of the Revolutionary Guard, which is subdivided into zealots and careerists.

Those splits are aggravated by the resentment of women and the anger of students, nine out of 10 of whom cannot get into universities. Clerics are torn as well, with some disgusted with the high living of others. Voters are tiring of electing "reformers" to Parliament and getting no reform.

Because resentment is rising in so many segments, authorities cannot "crack down" (as can North Korea and Cuba) without triggering a general uprising. To survive, Tehran feels it must whip up hatred of the West, finance terror against Israel and gain impunity with its own nuclear bomb.

How does America show solidarity with Iran's restive majority without allowing the ayatollahs to credibly accuse their internal opposition of being stooges of the West?

Here's what not to do: Don't assume the enemy of our enemy is our friend. The "People's Mujahedeen," a communist group, broke with the ayatollahs decades ago and treasonously set up shop under Saddam's protection in Iraq. We just disarmed thousands of these terrorists (getting no thanks from Tehran), and in Paris this week Jean-Louis Bruguiere, chief of "la section antiterroriste" rounded up 150 of its leaders (getting effusive thanks from Tehran). We want no part of this crowd, hated by patriotic Iranians.

Nor should we succumb to the siren song of "engagement" with the phony reform front. Such a display of Western appeasement would undercut the dissenters and give the ayatollahs time to complete the nuclear bomb-building that even the previously complaisant International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors fear is under way.

Fortunately, engagement advocates have become an endangered species even at the State Department. Colin Powell is on board, and President Bush's message to "those courageous souls who speak out for freedom in Iran" hit the right note: "America stands squarely by their side, and I would urge the Iranian administration to treat them with the utmost of respect."

His studied avoidance of the disparaging word "regime" signaled that it is political change that is needed, not regime change. Even in his tougher statement on Wednesday about the danger of nukes in the arsenal of the leading supporter of terrorism — "we will not tolerate construction of a nuclear weapon" — Bush's pronoun "we" referred to consensus of "the international community."

By breathing on the spark of freedom without blowing too hard, and by leading the increase of pressure on a crumbling dictatorship, we may be able to limit the spread of nuclear weapons without having to take them out.

New York Times News Service