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Act on Iran

Jimmy Carter, the pacific man of the moment, may soon find a difficult period of his presidency under scrutiny. The Bush administration's national security team has been embroiled in a heated debate over Iran policy, and it revolves around a promise Mr. Carter made to Ayatollah Khomeini. The policy issue is immense: to what extent can and should we support the rebellion of the Iranians against the theocracy in power in Tehran ?

The president has rejected the State Department's long-standing efforts to work with the handful of self-proclaimed "reformists" in Tehran , and their failed leader, President Mohammad Khatami. Mr. Bush is correct that we should actively help the brave Iranians who are leading demonstrations against the regime, the world's major sponsor of terrorism. If we do, our chances for success are excellent. Why? Because a new generation has come of age in Iran (two-thirds of the population is under 25), and young Iranians despise the mullahs and love America . Huge crowds turned out in support of the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001 and again last month, despite warnings from the regime and a mounting tempo of executions, arrests and censorship.

It would be proper for us to help the freedom seekers in Iran even if we were not under assault from a terror network which has Tehran at its center. But thus far the administration has shied away from giving even the modest support the U.S. has provided freedom fighters in Central and Eastern Europe in the Cold War, in Yugoslavia against Milosevic, and in the Philippines against Marcos.

Instead it seems that Mr. Carter's ghost roams the White House, insisting that we appease Khomeini's successors. Opponents of a more vigorous Iran policy -- notably Colin Powell and Richard Armitage -- have invoked a clause in Mr. Carter's 1981 deal that produced the release of the American hostages a few minutes before Ronald Reagan was inaugurated: "It is and from now on will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or  militarily, in Iran's internal affairs.." But contrary to these protestations, the deal is what is known as a "sole executive agreement," and can be abandoned at any time the president wishes. There was no congressional role, so no congressional action is required to undo it.

While we're dithering, Iran-sponsored terrorists have assassinated Americans, and Iran is actively meddling in internal American affairs by funding advocates of "better relations" between the two countries. It often seems the Iranians themselves no longer consider the agreement operative: no Iranian official has invoked it amidst laments about President Bush's condemnation of the regime. The only officials who take it seriously are our own top diplomats, who hide behind a piece of paper whose only purpose was to rescue 52 American hostages in Tehran .

This triumph of legalism over common sense is a fitting legacy for Mr. Carter, who famously viewed Khomeini's 1979 revolution as an improvement over the Shah , at least until the hostage crisis doomed his political career. It is hardly worthy of endorsement by an administration that is waging a global war on terrorism.

Mr. Ledeen, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "The War Against the Terror Masters"( St. Martin 's Press, 2002).


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