Iran is fast emerging on Washington’s radar screen as the next major foreign-policy crisis.  Several officials in the Bush administration—including the President himself—emphasized that the United States will never allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons.  And, on that issue, there was no significant difference between President Bush and John Kerry.

Equally ominous, many of the hawkish luminaries who lobbied successfully for the United States to go to war against Iraq have now turned their sights on the Islamic regime in Tehran.  Several neoconservative activists—most notably Michael Ledeen, a policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute—are pushing for Washington to adopt a goal of regime change in Iran.  Most of them stress that they are not advocating that the United States launch an invasion, insisting that such an initiative would be unnecessary.  There is supposedly so much public opposition in Iran to the mullahs that a U.S. propaganda offensive combined with financial and logistical assistance to prospective insurgents would be sufficient to topple the regime.

Such a thesis might seem more plausible if we had not heard similar arguments in the years leading up to the war in Iraq.  Those arguments were quietly buried when the time for action arrived.  Saddam’s overthrow was carried out by a massive application of U.S. military power.  If the United States were to adopt a similar strategy of regime change in Iran, it is likely that an even greater military effort would be required.

U.S. officials should be wary of venturing down that path.  The United States has had a long and turbulent history of involvement with Iran, and it seems as though every time Washington tries to solve one problem in the Persian Gulf region, it creates others that are even worse.

Hawkish elements who regard the Iranian government as a threat to America’s security often act as though this country’s interaction with Iran began in 1979 with the Islamic revolution and the subsequent hostage taking at the U.S. embassy.  Iran’s hostility to the United States did not come as a bolt of out the blue, however; Washington made that hostility almost inevitable.  In 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency orchestrated a coup against the democratic government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mos-sedegh because he was deemed too friendly to the Soviet Union.  The United States helped restore the shah to the throne, and that autocrat proceeded to brutalize and loot his country for the next quarter-century.  When a coalition of secular and Islamic factions ousted the shah in 1979, the Iranian people had ample reason to hate the shah’s chief patron.

Matters became worse after the hostage crisis.  Washington embarked on a policy to isolate Iran economically and diplomatically—a strategy that failed almost from the outset because key U.S. allies refused to go along.  Especially during the 1980’s, the United States feared the spread of Iran’s political and religious influence throughout the Middle East.  To help block Iranian power and the potential ideological contagion of Islamic fundamentalism, Washington quietly backed Saddam Hussein’s war against his eastern neighbor, further enraging Iranians.  Although there was one abortive attempt during the Reagan years to explore the possibility of a rapprochement with Tehran (in the bizarre Iran-Contra affair), the relationship has remained tense and hostile to the present day.

The main cause of tension today is Iran’s nuclear program.  Although the Iranians insist that the program is designed solely for peaceful, power-generation purposes, U.S. (and other Western) officials believe that it is aimed at building nuclear weapons.  They are probably right, but this is another problem that the United States helped to bring about.  Iran has noticed how the United States has treated such nonnuclear adversaries as Serbia and Iraq.  It is hardly an irrational act for Tehran to conclude that the only way to prevent similar treatment in Iran’s case is to have a nuclear deterrent—especially after President Bush linked that country to Iraq and North Korea in an “Axis of Evil.”

No one can be happy at the prospect of the volatile and repressive government of Iran having nuclear weapons.  It is, however, a manageable problem.  The United States deterred the likes of Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-tung when the Soviet Union and China built nuclear arsenals.  The 3,000 weapons in America’s strategic arsenal should certainly be sufficient to deter Iran.  As far as regime change is concerned, all advocates of freedom hope that the Iranian people will someday remove the mullahs from power.  That job, however, is up to them, not to the United States.