Monday, April 17, 2006

Wanted: A Sensible Policy to Check Tehran's Nuke Program

Michael Hirsh, Newsweek:
In the minds of some Bush administration officials, the solution to America's new foreign-policy crisis lies with people like "the Larry King of Iran." That's what Ahmad Baharloo's executive producer, Maryam Velgot, calls the ruggedly handsome host of the Persian-language show "Roundtable With You" on Voice of America.

Baharloo, an Iranian exile in Washington, will soon be a prime instrument of the administration's new democracy-promotion campaign in Iran. Of the $85 million President George W. Bush has requested from Congress for the campaign, about $50 million will go to expanding Farsi television programs on VOA, and Baharloo is a star performer.

Beginning in June, Baharloo's interview-and-call-in show will be beamed into Iranian homes seven days a week instead of just one. The goal: to blanket the repressive, cleric-run state with open dialogue and glad tidings from America. Asked whether any Larry King-type character—even the real one—could do much to engender democratic revolution, Velgot says, "Well, he's more like the old, serious Larry King." She adds that there is much more coming, like a fast-paced news-magazine show with a chic, comely host named Luna Shad that "can be likened to Anderson Cooper's '360º'." That will also move from one day a week to seven. READ MORE

Bush won't call this policy "regime change." And it certainly isn't the kind of regime change we remember from his first term, when he employed a much blunter instrument in Iraq. But it is one of the ways that the administration is groping for a non-military solution to a brutally difficult predicament. Last week Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran will move its nuclear program to full-scale uranium enrichment—and he threw in another ugly threat to Israel for good measure—even as U.S. officials lobbied hard for an anti-Iran resolution at the U.N. Security Council. Countering several recent news reports, U.S. officials denied that airstrikes on Iran's nuclear facilities were even close to imminent. But the president pointedly sidestepped questions about whether military contingency planning was underway.

The point of the new hearts-and-minds program, U.S. officials say, is to remind the Iranian people what goodies await them—mainly economic prosperity—if they drop their nuclear ambitions. Yet outside interference tends to enrage Iranians, who have never forgiven Washington for the CIA-assisted coup that toppled elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. "It's not new," Javad Zarif, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, says of the American campaign. "They increased their activities in Iran two or three years ago and now instead of a reformist president we have a conservative president. That tells you how successful they were."

Zarif may have a point. Before the Iranian presidential elections last June, Bush issued a statement criticizing the fairness of the process. Even affluent voters who said they hated the Shiite mullahs told a NEWSWEEK reporter in Iran at the time that American arrogance so angered them they decided to vote for Ahmadinejad, the radical candidate. In such an atmosphere, a military attack of any kind would only incite Iranians even more, many U.S. officials concede.

There is some evidence the Bush administration may be dabbling in covert action as well. The Iranian regime has been incensed in recent months by a series of attacks by "bandits" along the border, and has accused U.S. and British intelligence agencies of fomenting unrest. U.S. officials insist they have nothing to do with such attacks. And some officials familiar with U.S. intelligence operations say they are unaware of any presidential directive, or "finding," instructing the CIA or other U.S. agencies to conduct covert actions. If true, that means the president is relying, for the moment, on Ahmad Baharloo and his broadcast brigade.

With Mark Hosenball, Richard Wolffe and John Barry in Washington, Christopher Dickey in Paris and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Arizona