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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.

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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.

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