Afghanistan remains a mess. Iraq is becoming so. But George Bush wants to march on to Iran.
Expect him to ramp up the rhetoric in the weeks ahead. Perhaps even prepare the ground for bombing that country's nuclear installations in the months leading up to next year's presidential election.
It may not come to Two Minutes Over Tehran, à la the 1981 Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor in Baghdad. But don't rule out the scenario, either.
It would be an easy option — no mass mobilization of troops, no anti-war protests, no messy war.
It would be tempting to a president in domestic trouble over a sinking economy and deteriorating public services due to his tax cuts.
A quick hit on Iran could be more unilateral than the American invasion of Iraq. The president wouldn't even need the obsequious Tony Blair in tow.
"The international community must come together to make it very clear to Iran that we will not tolerate construction of a nuclear weapon," Bush said, sounding just like he did last fall launching his campaign for war on Iraq.
Already, he has leaned on Spain and others to begin intercepting, at sea and in the air, nuclear-related shipments into and out of Iran. But no legal authority exists permitting the seizure of such shipments in international waters or airspace.
"We don't want to get bogged down in that," said an unnamed senior administration official.
No, sir. Nor worry over the detail that America has failed to convince the 35-member board of the International Atomic Energy Agency to condemn Iran, thus opening the door to future Security Council action.
The European Union, while concerned over Iranian nuclear intentions, does not share the American assessment that Iran is building nuclear weapons. Besides, Iran is not the only member to contravene IAEA rules.
So, America may twist and stretch the agency's more limited rulings, the way it did with U.N. resolutions on Iraq.
The process already has begun and may lead to bullying, using the usual double standards.
North Korea's nuclear program is way ahead of Iran's. Pyongyang is also blackmailing the U.S., threatening to develop nuclear bombs if it doesn't get more aid and security guarantees. But it will be dealt with differently. Those with nuclear capability always are.
Also, Iran, unlike North Korea, is antagonistic to Israel and must be taught a lesson.
Bush is encouraging dissidents in Iran to keep up their protests. But the students may not want his support.
The last time an American president urged a people to rebel, they paid with their lives.
In 1991, George H.W. Bush abandoned the Iraqi Shiites after urging them to overthrow Saddam Hussein, who slaughtered nearly 20,000 of them.
What would Bush Jr. offer the agitating Iranians should the regime go after them?
His reading of Iran's internal dynamic does not inspire much confidence, either.
His administration's favorite Iranian seems to be Reza Pahlavi, the unloved son of the late, unlamented Shah. From his exile in a Washington suburb, Pahlavi is being paraded on CNN, Fox News and other media. But out in the real world of Tehran, not one demonstrator can be spotted carrying a royalist sign.
Washington's other chosen instrument is the discredited and violent Mojahedeen-e-Khalq.
Branded a terrorist organization by the State Department in 1997 and by the European Union last year, it waged guerrilla war against Iran from Iraq under Saddam Hussein's patronage. Yet having conquered Iraq, America has chosen to mollycoddle the guerrillas there — as a foil against Tehran.
The hypocrisy is galling, even by realpolitik standards.
This became embarrassingly obvious Tuesday when France moved against the terrorists' offices in Paris, arresting 150 people and hauling in $8 million (U.S.) in $100 bills, 200 satellite dishes and 100 computers.
Dozens of its fanatical supporters are setting themselves on fire in protest, with nary a word by American commentators on the pathology of self-immolation.
Meanwhile, democracy is evolving in Iran, albeit too slowly for the long-suffering Iranians.
Frustrated by a lack of jobs and chafing under social strictures, Iranians, especially the young, are taking greater risks to register their grievances.
Parliament, controlled by the reformist forces of President Mohammed Khatami, has passed two bills to enhance his power and curb that of the conservative clergy that controls the key levers of power and holds a veto over legislation.
As many as 127 MPs have written a courageous letter to Syed Khamenei, religious supreme leader, accusing him of distorting the constitution to undermine democracy, thus risking "dictatorship, disintegration and degeneration."
They suggested he drink from "the poisoned chalice" that Iranian theocracy has become.
About 250 intellectuals, including a senior ayatollah, have dared further. They said that attributing absolute and near-divine powers to the religious leader is tantamount to polytheism. The declaration is like planting political dynamite at the heart of Islamic Iran.
Iran's slow intellectual evolution — not unlike that of Western democracy, way back when — has no current parallel in the Islamic world. It represents the precise process of democratization that America has been demanding, rightly so, of Muslim nations post-Sept. 11.
Whatever help is needed from the West, it is certainly not the sort that Bush is, or seems capable of, offering.
Haroon Siddiqui is the Star's editorial page editor emeritus.
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