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   Jeff Jacoby
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

Copyright Boston Globe

June 19, 2003

Pro-democracy demonstrations are convulsing Iran, and the country's theocratic dictators say it's all the Great Satan's fault.

On Sunday, the foreign ministry blasted the United States for "flagrant interference in Iran's internal affairs." Two days later, 217 members of the country's Potemkin parliament signed a statement denouncing "America's strategy regarding Iran" -- a nefarious plan "to take away its independence and turn it into America's slave."

Alas, it is far from clear that the United States has a strategy regarding Iran.

Soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush declared Iran a charter member of the Axis of Evil, and he has repeatedly sided with the brave young Iranians who are defying the Tehran regime. "I think freedom is a powerful incentive," he said most recently, calling the protests "the beginnings of people expressing themselves toward a free Iran."

Unfortunately, his position has been undercut by the State Department, which has spent much of the past 21 months trying to "engage" the mullahs' cooperation in the war against terrorism -- despite State's own designation of Iran as the world's foremost sponsor of international terror. At one point, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage went so far as to label Iran a "democracy" -- a bizarre description for a country where demands for reform or criticism of the fanatical Islamic government can be punished with flogging, imprisonment, or death. This week, Secretary of State Colin Powell finally offered a few tepid words in support of the protesters. Peaceful demonstrations for change, he said, are "proper."

But if the administration's voice has been muddled, others have spoken with admirable clarity. One unwavering advocate of regime change in Iran is Michael Ledeen, an expert on terrorism and the Middle East at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "The War Against the Terror Masters" (2002). Over and over, Ledeen has argued that the best way to bring down the "mullahcracy" in Tehran is to encourage and strengthen the Iranian people in their demands for liberation.

Iranians have good reason to loathe the despots who rule their ancient land, Ledeen writes.

"Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his top henchman, Ayatollah Mohammed Hashemi Rafsanjani have not only stolen billions of dollars from the Iranian people, they have wrecked the economy . . . and reduced a once-proud civil culture to humiliation. There are virtual epidemics of teenage prostitution and drug abuse, an ongoing exodus of able-bodied and talented Iranians, an endless repression of freedom . . . , and a mounting tempo of violence, arrest, and execution, including the revival of . . . sharia punishments such as dismemberment, public decapitation, and stoning."

No less despicable is the mullahs' role in the international terror network. "Iran is not only a participant on the other side," Ledeen notes, "it is the heart of the jihadist structure. If we are really serious about winning the war against terrorism, we must defeat Iran."

Are we serious? The longer we wait to act, the more progress Tehran will make on its crash program to develop a nuclear bomb, the more successful it will be in sabotaging US efforts to rebuild Iraq as a democratic republic, and the more innocent blood its proteges in Hezbollah, Hamas, and Al Qaeda will shed. Americans of every political stripe should be able to agree that a free and tolerant Iran is preferable to an Iran ruled by ruthless bigots. We ought to be doing all we can to make that transformation possible.

What the Iranian people need from us is not a military invasion, but sustained backing for their own self-liberation. That should include:

An explicit declaration that it is the policy of the United States to support a transition to democracy, pluralism, and religious freedom in Iran;

Financial support for the privately-owned Persian-language TV and radio stations in southern California that for millions of Iranians have become a key source of information and inspiration;

Reform of Radio Farda, the US government's Persian radio service, so that it seeks out the views of pro-democracy Iranian exiles and actively promotes human rights and self-rule in Iran; and

The seizing of every opportunity to stress that the United States supports the right of Iranians to live in freedom under a democratic and lawful government of their own choosing.

All these provisions would be mandated by the Iran Democracy Act, S. 1082, introduced by Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas last month. The bill -- which is to say, the cause of Iranian liberty -- deserves enthusiastic and bipartisan support. Americans who opposed the war in Iraq no less than those who favored it should be cheering this embryonic democratic revolution. Nearly a year ago, President Bush promised that "as Iran's people move towards a future defined by greater freedom, greater tolerance, they will have no better friend than the United States of America." Let it be so.

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