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Onward to Iran?

WHEN PRESIDENT BUSH'S rhetoric about freedom soars, much of the world shrinks because it may mean another Iraq. Thus when the president fingered Iran as the ''world's primary state sponsor of terror, pursuing nuclear weapons, while depriving its people of the freedom they seek and deserve," you have to wonder, is Iran next?

The Americans are scornful of ongoing European diplomatic effort to talk Iran out of its nuclear ambitions, calling it a carrot-carrot approach. The Europeans, in turn, wish the Americans would join their effort instead of sniping at it from afar.

Mohammed ElBaradie, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, wishes everyone would get on the same page. He says that the Europeans cannot solve this alone, and that the Americans should be engaged. But Americans keep growling about a war option, which Foreign Minister Jack Straw of Britain called ''madness" and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder called ''the last thing we need."

Even though Europe and the United States do not see eye to eye on Iran, there may be a good cop-bad cop dynamic in play, with the Europeans stressing the benefits they can offer Iran while the United States brandishes the stick.

The weakness in the military option is that no one knows where Iran is keeping its bomb-making materials, so there is not just one site that can be bombed as when the Israelis bombed Iraq's nuclear weapons facility. If Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker has it right, American reconnaissance teams are already inside Iran. But as Senator John McCain has pointed out, the US military is fully tied down in Iraq, and it is going to be difficult to persuade Americans that another war for weapons of mass destruction is necessary after crying wolf about Iraq.

Former president Bill Clinton has said that President Bush had done the right thing by keeping ''the military option on the table, but not pushing it too far." Diplomacy with force behind it is often more effective than diplomacy alone.

But were it just good cop-bad cop the Iranian crisis would not be so dangerous. The worry is that the United States may take its revolutionary zeal into Iran, believing that a military option might topple the ayatollahs and free the majority of Iranians who are longing to be rid of their theocracy. Iranians I have met, however, say that nothing could drive them into the arms of their ayatollahs more than an American military move. ''The most radical of our mullahs are longing for an American attack," an Iranian woman told me quietly. ''That's all they would need to consolidate their power."

Clinton, in Davos, went on to say that people and nations were the products of their dreams and their nightmares. He remembered discussing the expansion of NATO with Boris Yeltsin, and saying, ''Boris you cannot really believe that I would attack you from Poland." Yeltsin said, no, but his people had the history of invasions in their souls.

Iran's historical nightmare is foreign intervention, whether it be by the Soviets and British in the past, or the American coup against a democratically elected government in the 1950s. With American armies on their borders in Afghanistan and Iraq, and with Bush calling them part of an ''axis of evil," some believe that nuclear weapons have become an emotional necessity for Iranians.

Senator Joseph Biden said that even if Iran was a full democracy like India, it would want nuclear capability, like India. What the world needed to address was Iran's emotional needs, he said, with a nonaggression pact.

In the end, the United States and the Europeans may not succeed in preventing an Iranian bomb unless they are willing to address Iran's nightmares and guarantee its safety. But that runs contrary to the reigning theology in Washington that divides the world into good and evil, and believes in the benefits of using force.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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