The dangers posed by Iran are serious, and America needs to respond with serious policies, not more theatrics. Labeling Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization - as the State Department now proposes - is another distraction when what the Bush administration needs to be doing is opening comprehensive negotiations with Tehran, backed by increasing international economic pressure.
Those negotiations need to deal with all real and alleged facets of Iran's many dangerous behaviors: its nuclear ambitions; its sectarian meddling in Iraq; its providing of missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the charges it is arming the Taliban and others in Afghanistan. And any talks must take into account Iran's concerns about its own security - with a clear offer that it can come in from the diplomatic and economic cold if it improves its behavior.
Designating Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a foreign terrorist group would trigger automatic American economic penalties against the guard leaders and companies dealing with them. But Iran does little direct business with the United States, so those penalties would cause minimal pain. That suggests that the State Department's real audience isn't Tehran, but conflict-obsessed administration hawks, who are lobbying for military strikes, and conflict-averse European allies, who have resisted more far-reaching multilateral economic sanctions.
We hope the State Department prevails in both of those arguments. But it has chosen a particularly blunt instrument to wave around. If there's any doubt about that, officials should take another look at the recent North Korea nuclear deal - and the contortions and delays they had to go through to roll back the Patriot Act sanctions on North Korean bank deposits.
It is also surely not in America's interest to dilute the hard-won international consensus against terrorist groups like Al Qaeda by stretching the term to include a section of Tehran's official armed forces. That said, the Revolutionary Guard is a real and present danger for the Iranian people and their neighbors. Formed in 1979 as an ideological shock force to protect Iran's revolutionary clerics, the guards have played a central role in some of the regime's most abhorrent activities, including assassinating dissidents. And they have built up a considerable business empire, especially in military related industries, including Iran's efforts to produce fuel that could be used for nuclear weapons.
International asset freezes and foreign travel bans directed at Revolutionary Guard leaders and their business partners are certainly deserved, and would make real sense as part of a program of international sanctions and coupled with a clear American offer for serious negotiations. By themselves they are futile.
In its desperation over Iraq, the White House has grudgingly allowed American diplomats in Baghdad to meet with their Iranian counterparts, most recently last week. But these sessions have been little more than empty rituals - long recitations of mutual complaints with no effort to even consider possible solutions. Iran has become too dangerous a problem for such continued amateurism.
© 2007 The New York Times