Exiles: How Iran's Expatriates are Gaming the Nuclear Threat

New Yorker, By Connie Bruck
March 6, 2006

On a snowy mid-December day, Reza Pahlavi, the forty-five-year-old son of the deposed Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was seated at a table by the fire at a popular country-French restaurant in Georgetown, enjoying a bowl of cassoulet and plotting the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He was accompanied by Shahriar Ahy, who in the months before the 1979 Iranian revolution had been an informal liaison between the Shah and the White House; after the Shah died, in exile, in 1980, Ahy remained close to Reza, whom many refer to as "the young shah." By early 2004, Ahy, who had been running a multinational media company from Saudi Arabia, had left his job to work full time on unseating the Iranian regime. Although Ahy says that he has no factional affiliations, he has become, in essence, Pahlavi's political strategist, mentor, speechwriter, monitor. He is also attempting, on Pahlavi's behalf, to unite the atomized Iranian opposition. Ahy, an M.I.T. graduate-school alumnus, is often compared to his fellow alumnus Ahmad Chalabi, who, before the American invasion of Iraq, was the head of the Iraqi National Congress. An Iranian-American political activist with ties to Ahy and Pahlavi commented recently, "If Reza is ever returned to power, it will be because of Shahriar."

At lunch, as long as Pahlavi stayed on well-marked if somewhat platitudinous terrain, Ahy concentrated on the plate of calf's brain before him. But when Pahlavi seemed to veer off course Ahy's head jerked slightly. At one point, Pahlavi became quite excited, saying, "Maybe what happened twenty-six years ago is a blessing in disguise." Ahy, frowning, waited for him to finish his thought, and Pahlavi continued, "I don't think we could have had the appreciation for democratic values we have come to today. It's by losing democracy that we have come to value it." Ahy said, "You know what Churchill said when told that his loss in the 1945 election was a blessing in disguise." He glanced at Pahlavi. "He said, 'It is quite effectively disguised.' "

A front-page story in the Washington Post that morning reported that Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had called the extermination of six million Jews during the Second World War a "myth." The week before, at a conference of Islamic nations in Saudi Arabia, he had said that, if the Europeans had supported the creation of Israel because of guilt over their actions against Jews, they should give the Jews a country in Europe instead. "We have been trying to tell the world, 'This is who this regime is,' " Pahlavi said, with grim satisfaction. "What you see here is the most extreme-not the smiling face of Khatami." Mohammad Khatami, the former President of Iran, who was elected as a reformist in 1997, had made overtures to the U.S., at one point calling for "a dialogue of civilizations," but his efforts at reform were stymied at home by a conservative backlash. Pahlavi went on, "Now the veil finally comes off!"

For years, the Iranian opposition has been so beset by factionalism that it has defied efforts at mobilization. Pahlavi insists that those days are past. Ahy is organizing a national congress, built around the Iran referendum movement, which calls for a nationwide vote on changing the constitution in order to make Iran a secular state. The two men stress that, with international pressure building over Iran's nuclear program, and with Bush's second term winding down, 2006 is the critical year. "Today, it is not 'You are a monarchist,' 'You are a republican,' 'You are a Marxist'-we are all in the same boat, fighting a common enemy," Pahlavi said. "We are getting very close, thank God. From what I hear from the activists, the walls of resistance are slowly dissipating, but it is still among the political elite and the intelligentsia. The message has yet to trickle down. So the opposition has to have broadcasting capability. If we had a wish list for Christmas, that would be on it."

Ahy spends nearly all his time traveling through Europe and the Middle East, recruiting Iranian dissidents. Pahlavi said that eighty per cent of his time is spent communicating with activists inside Iran: "I tell them this is not an open-ended debate. We have a time line of six months. Now, there can be no predicting-will there be preemptive strikes, either by Israel or by the U.S.? It's the absence of a homegrown alternative that causes the world to take drastic steps. But we have to tell the world that we have this alternative-shame on us if we don't!" According to Ahy, the national congress will be convened by summer, to be followed by a huge civil-disobedience campaign throughout Iran. "All have to cooperate to bring the regime down," he said. "We would have five, six, seven clusters inside, coordinated for unity of action. So, at the same time, the Kurds would be doing this! The oil workers striking over here! So the wolves are not running after different zebras."

In the past few months, Pahlavi and Ahy have met with leftists and with ethnic minorities. They have been excoriated for this by the monarchists, who are their core constituency, because many of these groups have separatist ambitions, which have been encouraged by the recent political victories of the Kurds in neighboring Iraq. For the nationalistic Persians-who have dominated Iran since Pahlavi's grandfather Reza Shah came to power, in 1925, and solidified their control over the minorities-Iran's territorial integrity is sacrosanct. Ahy defended Pahlavi: "He's talking to Kurds, to guerrilla forces, to the left-he's having a great time with them! What he's trying to do is say, 'We are one people, we are going to have to sit next to each other in a congress-the most important thing is to talk to each other.' " Last September, Pahlavi had dinner in Berlin with some of the leftists who had helped to overthrow his father, and it generated outrage on both the left and the right. Ahy said, "For two months, all these Web sites were filled with things like 'How could you possibly sit with him?' "

The issue of having designs on the throne dogs Pahlavi, no matter how much he tries to dispel it. He insists that his "sole mission" is to bring democracy to Iran, and that the Iranian people will then decide whether they want a democratic republic or a constitutional monarchy. His role model is King Juan Carlos of Spain, who is also a friend. "In his heart, he wants to be king," an Iranian-American dissident who has known Reza since he was a boy says. "And the Iranian people are not fools-they know it. It would be better if he said it outright."

I had last seen Pahlavi six months earlier, in Los Angeles, home to some six hundred thousand Iranian expatriates, and a monarchist stronghold. Many there still dream of recovering all that they lost in 1979. Others have rebuilt their lives and businesses but, even so, remain emotionally transfixed by the memory of their loss. A former chief executive of a major company in Iran recalled how he telephoned his secretary from Europe when the regime fell and was told, "There is an ayatollah sitting behind your desk."

In order to demonstrate his ties with dissidents in Iran, Pahlavi was appearing at a rally outside the Federal Building in West Los Angeles on June 12th, several days before the first round of the elections that made Ahmadinejad President; the monarchists and some allied groups, who were calling for Iranians to boycott the elections, had organized a rally and hunger strike in solidarity with political prisoners in Iran. The rally was scheduled to last three days, with Pahlavi fasting the whole time, but his security people decided that protection was inadequate, and he appeared at length only on the third day, drawing a crowd of about five hundred, rather than the hoped-for thousands. Still, the demonstrators made up for their small numbers with their fervor. Standing at the microphone, Pahlavi, whose countenance is somewhat reminiscent of his father's, but more open, and whose manner is diffident, said, in Farsi, "I have no aspirations to be shah, I have no aspirations to be President, I want to help for the liberation of Iran." But the crowd kept chanting, "Our leader is Pahlavi, Reza, Reza Pahlavi!" A man crossed the security line to pose for a picture with Pahlavi, who was seated on the dais; then he bowed low, and kissed Pahlavi's hand.

In Georgetown, I told Pahlavi that I had heard from many of his compatriots that they would consider him a more acceptable opposition leader if he would simply renounce the throne. "I won't make a decision," Pahlavi responded. "It's not up to me. If there's a monarchist who wants the option of constitutional monarchy, what right do I have to foreclose that option?"

"He would be infringing on my rights," Ahy chimed in.

Ahmadinejad's invective and his determination to resume his country's nuclear program have increased the pressure on the Bush Administration to formulate, at last, a comprehensive Iran policy-something that it failed to do in its first term, because of interagency disagreements and because of its preoccupation with the war in Iraq. During that period, the various opposition groups' hopes of returning to Iran rose and fell as the Administration's policymakers clashed over their assessments of Iran's vulnerability and U.S. options. Once again, as had been the case with Iraq, the officials were trying to make sense of a place that was altogether foreign and, to many of them, inscrutable. Indeed, Iran was even more of a tabula rasa-the U.S. had had no diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979, when the Americans were taken hostage in the seizure of the American Embassy there. This was, therefore, a situation ripe for exploitation by the opposition groups, who were eager to sell themselves as guides to the unmapped region, as the ready-made solution to what was, in truth, an increasingly intractable and grave dilemma. And, like all pretenders to power, the groups maneuvered in a world of potentiality, dismissed as charlatans by some, viewed as possible American surrogates by others. What the Iranians had to fortify themselves, however, was the example of Chalabi-if he had found favor, why couldn't they?

The exiles' prospects seemed-at least to them-especially tantalizing in the early days of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when it looked as if Iran might well be next. ("And it would have been, if Iraq had been a slam dunk,"  

Ahy says.) Indeed, some Administration supporters who were intent on bringing democracy to the broader Middle East through regime change argued that Iran, not Iraq, should be first. Among them was Michael Ledeen, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who played a role in the Iran-Contra scandal by arranging meetings between his friend the Iranian arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar and the U.S. government. Ledeen has been predicting for many years that Iran is on the verge of a popular revolution, which only requires some outside help to become a reality. He told a group of Iranian expatriates in Los Angeles not long ago, "I have contacts in Iran, fighting the regime. They need funds. Give me twenty million, and you'll have your revolution." He told me that in 2001 and 2002, when he pressed the case for Iran with friends in the Administration, he had support from some officials in the Pentagon and in the office of Vice-President Dick Cheney. Richard Haass, who was the director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff from 2001 to 2003, and who is currently the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told me, "A number of Israeli officials were much more concerned about Iran. They worried that we were focusing on Iraq rather than on Iran, though they were careful not to appear critical of the Bush Administration."

But the prevalent view among neoconservatives in the Administration, Ledeen said, was that "the road to Tehran lies through Baghdad." A person familiar with conversations among the Vice President's nationalsecurity staff when Saddam's regime was toppled recalled, "There was a lot of loose talk there-like 'Now we can deal with Iran.' " Democratization in both Afghanistan and Iraq, it was believed, would increase the pressure on the Iranian regime. And, if the threat of military intervention was required, U.S. forces would be well situated. James Dobbins, the Bush Administration's special envoy for Afghanistan, told me that in the prewar planning for Iraq "there was an intention that the U.S. would retain troops in Iraq-not for Iraq stabilization, because that was thought not to be needed, but for coercive diplomacy in the region. Meaning Iran and Syria."

Those who were keen on the Chalabi model-that is, an exile who could supposedly organize and unify the opposition-were looking at Iran through that prism, too. Conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Washington Institute on Near East Policy "have been looking for a Chalabi," according to Gary Sick, who was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian revolution and is now a professor at Columbia University. Sick listed prospective Chalabis who have visited one or both of the institutions over the past several years: Reza Pahlavi; Hussein Khomeini, the grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; and Mohsen Sazegara, one of the founders of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps. Sazegara leaped briefly to the forefront of the referendum movement in the fall of 2004, in London. Patrick Clawson, a prominent Washington hard-liner, brought him to the Washington Institute, where he is the research director. The institute is well connected within the Administration and has close ties to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, and Sazegara has been criticized by others in the opposition for his association with it. "Patrick and the Washington Institute have been running screen tests," Sick continued. " 'What do you think of this guy, wouldn't he be good?' They take them to the Council on Foreign Relations to speak, and get their papers published. But, so far, nobody has passed the test."

Many who have known Pahlavi over the years were surprised that, for a time, he seemed to come close to passing it. Although Reza was crowned king in Cairo, following his father's death, in 1980, and his mother, Farah Pahlavi, who lives in Washington and Paris, refers to him in formal settings as "Your Majesty," he did not seem like a man who would risk everything to regain his throne. Vali Nasr, an Iranian-born political science professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, whose father was counsellor to Queen Farah, said, "I knew him when we were young. He's very nice-but he is not perceived by Iranians to be regal. And he wants to be brought back." In 1986, when Pahlavi was twenty-five, he married another Iranian expatriate, seventeen-year-old Yasmine Etemad-Amini, whose parents had fled to the U.S. at the time of the revolution. Reza and Yasmine lived in a Washington suburb with their three daughters. Pahlavi had C.I.A. funding for a number of years in the eighties, but it ended after the Iran-Contra scandal. An Iranian-American who knows him well told me a story that had made the rounds in Iranian expatriate circles: "Reza was shopping in Nordstrom's, buying plates. A Persian woman came up to him, and said, in Persian, 'I should shatter these plates over your head! Why are you here, shopping, when you should be saving our country?' "

The student riots in Tehran in the summer of 1999 were momentous for Iran. President Khatami's liberalizing rhetoric in the previous few years had created an atmosphere in which the press and prodemocracy activists felt somewhat unbound; the press was freer than at any other time in the history of the Islamic Republic, and banned political parties began to regroup. In the fall of 1998, however, two prodemocracy dissidents and three writers were murdered by agents of the regime. The public outcry was so sharp that regime officials condemned the murders, and a cabinet minister was replaced; but after a bill limiting press freedoms was provisionally passed by the parliament, and a leading reformist newspaper was shut down by the judiciary, students at Tehran University protested, with chants for "democracy," "civil society," and "the rule of law." The government's paramilitary groups attacked them, and the carnage triggered riots throughout Tehran and in many other cities. The turmoil was the first serious challenge to the clerics, and might well have signaled the start of another revolution. Instead, President Khatami bowed to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and denounced the protesters. More than a thousand were imprisoned. "Eastern Europe was the model that influenced U.S. perceptions of Iran, and in the 1999-2003 period there was some intellectual legitimacy to that," an Iran specialist said. "It looked as though the opposition would be able to unite and find its voice-as though something might be possible. What were generally called reformers ran the gamut from moderate clergy to folks who wanted to reduce the authority of the Supreme Leader to a figurehead, from people who were out-and-out secular to the banned but tolerated and the students. But they had no links of substance with the external opposition."

In the months after the riots, Pahlavi tried to rise to the role he had inherited. He had long been surrounded by a small clique of his father's loyalists. Ahmad Oveyssi, whose brother was the Shah's ruthless martial-law administrator, is Reza's closest confidant. Parviz Sabeti, who headed the division of SAVAK-the Shah's secret police-charged with repressing the opposition, is one of the most despised of the Shah's men alive today. Pahlavi now brought in Bagher Parham-a respected Iranian dissident who fought to overthrow his father-as a political adviser. He met with a group of wealthy Iranian-American Republicans in New York to ask them for money for his organization and, according to an Iranian-American knowledgeable about the meeting, was told that they would match dollar for dollar any funds that he put in. "But Reza told them, 'I have no money!' " It was a touchy point; many Iranian-Americans believe that the son of the Shah must have access to great wealth, but Pahlavi has always insisted that he does not. Fereydoun Hoveida, a prominent Iranian exile (his brother was the Shah's Prime Minister), told me that Pahlavi visited the emir of Kuwait, the emir of Bahrain, the king of Morocco, and the royal family of Saudi Arabia to ask for funds, and was successful. (Pahlavi claims that his funding has come exclusively from Iranian émigrés and dissidents in Iran.)

Pahlavi began to give speeches at college campuses and Washington think tanks. On February 14, 2001, he appeared at the Washington Institute. An Iran expert in the audience recalled, "He was polished. He seemed as if he would be a nice neighbor-but he was not a charismatic guy who was going to lead a revolution. It was Valentine's Day, and he began by saying, 'In case any of you are planning to take your wives or girlfriends out to dinner, I hope you have planned ahead and made reservations-I tried this morning, and it turns out I'm going to be cooking.' I remember thinking, This guy wants to overthrow the Islamic Republic and he can't get dinner reservations!"

A serendipitous event helped to raise Pahlavi's profile. In March, 2000, an Iranian-American named Zia Atabay, who had been a popular singer in the days of the Shah, started a Farsi satellite television station in Los Angeles-National Iranian Television, or NITV-that would broadcast to Iranians in the United States and Western Europe. Six months later, Atabay discovered that the NITV signal was being picked up in Iran. (A listener called in to a talk show, and announced to the startled host that he was calling from Isfahan.) After September 11th, Atabay asked the station's listeners in Iran to hold a candlelight vigil to show solidarity with the United States, and thousands in Tehran did so. In the fall of 2001, Pahlavi was repeatedly interviewed on NITV and other Farsi stations, and he spoke about nonviolent resistance, addressing, in particular, Iran's huge youth population. Many responded by demonstrating in the streets and chanting, "We love you America!"

"In those TV interviews, Reza was wearing a tie, and he was clean-shaven-people were so upset with the ruling clerics that this mattered," Afshin Molavi, a journalist who has reported extensively from Iran and is a fellow at the New America Foundation, told me. "He would speak about secular democracy, and people did embrace him." Molavi added that in Iran there was "an economic nostalgia for the Pahlavi era"-for a time when people enjoyed social freedoms, and could travel easily to Europe, and the currency was stronger. But they wanted to see some clear sign that Pahlavi would come and stand with them, lead them, and eventually their enthusiasm flagged.

Still, the response to Pahlavi's satellite TV appearances allowed him to at least argue that he had a constituency in Iran. "And the C.I.A. got interested in him," an Iranian analyst told me. "It took the view that his uninvolvement could be an advantage. 'He's clean! He hasn't killed anyone! And he might be able to be a unifying figure.' "

Pahlavi and his supporters were thrilled by Bush's State of the Union speech in January, 2002, in which he referred to an "axis of evil" that included Iran and Iraq, along with North Korea, and later that year and in early 2003 opposition members obtained meetings with officials in the Vice-President's office, the National Security Council, and the State Department.

The heart of their support, however, was in the Pentagon, which was preparing a draft national-security Presidential directive, or N.S.P.D., on Iran. An Iranian political activist recalled having policy discussions with several people who were working on the draft, including Larry Franklin, the Pentagon's Iran desk officer; Ladan Archin, an Iranian American Pentagon official; and Michael Rubin, a young Pentagon staff assistant who wrote the draft. (In August, 2004, it was reported that Franklin was suspected of having described the document's contents to two AIPAC employees; he pleaded guilty last October.) It appeared that the Defense Department officials had been in contact with Pahlavi's associates. "There were ideas discussed that I had heard about from Ahmad Oveyssi a year or so earlier," the Iranian activist said. When the activist offered his own ideas, the officials' obvious enthusiasm led him to conclude that the draft was an elaborate directive for the mobilization of opposition forces. There would be money for communication devices for students in Iran; for American and European N.G.O.s; for buying off and neutralizing the Revolutionary Guard; for buying information; for supporting existing satellite-television operations; and for funding the exile opposition.

In the spring of 2003, after the invasion of Iraq, Pahlavi and his close circle were heartened. "They became so cocky-they thought that any day now they were going back to Iran," a person with close ties to them told me. "It looked as though America had walked over Afghanistan and Saddam. The Americans were talking about bringing Zahir Shah, the former king, back to Afghanistan from Rome. When he fell from power, in 1973, he was sustained by the Shah. They figured the Americans were going to bring Reza back." One of Pahlavi's congressional allies, Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, introduced a bill that would have channeled a hundred million dollars to support opposition activities, including TV and radio broadcasts into Iran. In May, 2003, Michael Ledeen wrote a policy brief for the American Enterprise Institute Web site arguing that Pahlavi would make a suitable leader for a transitional government, describing him as "widely admired inside Iran, despite his refreshing lack of avidity for power or wealth." The schism within the Administration between those who were favorably disposed toward Pahlavi and those who were not reflected the broader interagency policy divide. Richard Haass, Secretary of State Colin Powell's policy-planning director, recalled recently, "Reza came to see me one day. It was a pleasant fortyminute meeting. It was not clear to me that he had much of a following in Iran-and, in any event, he did not convince me that Iran was on the brink."

Haass continued, "I was in one camp, and the Vice-President's office and the O.S.D."-the office of the Secretary of Defense-"in the other. There were two very different schools of thought. One, that the U.S. ought to 'engage' Iran, offer the Iranians as much of a dialogue as they were prepared to have-to extend these concrete and political benefits, but only if we get what we want. The problem is that a lot of people in the government have been wedded to the idea of 'regime change.' They thought the regime was vulnerable, and engagement would throw the Iranians a lifeline. I believed then and I believe now that they are dead wrong.

History shows that the U.S. and Iran can do some business."

In late 2001, under the auspices of the United Nations, the two countries held talks regarding the American invasion of Afghanistan. In that situation, of course, the U.S. and Iran had a common interest, since the Shiite Iranians regarded the Sunni Taliban as their enemy. They provided considerable assistance during the invasion, allowing the U.S. to use an Iranian port and offering to search for American pilots who bailed out over Iranian territory. The Iranians were also vital to the success of the U.N. conference in Bonn in November, 2001, which created the interim government in Kabul. One Iranian official described his country's last-minute efforts to intervene with the Northern Alliance representatives, in order to salvage the agreement (an account that James Dobbins, the Administration's Afghanistan envoy, later confirmed to me). The Iranians seemed interested in expanding upon these talks and moving into other areas of cooperation. "And then," the Iranian official continued, "we got the 'axis of evil'!"

Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, a supporter of engagement with Iran, told me, "It's not unknown here that the Vice-President's office and the Department of Defense were very close, joined at the hip, and that the rest of us, at the Department of State and, to a lesser extent, the C.I.A., were kind of inconvenient."

The argument between the proponents of regime change-who generally preferred to bring down the government by supporting Iranian opposition groups rather than by military invasion-and those of constructive engagement was played out in its most focused form in the contest over the national-security Presidential directive, in the spring and summer of 2003. The Pentagon draft of the directive exemplified the hard-line approach, whereas State Department and National Security Council drafts left room for diplomatic engagement. The key question, one person familiar with the debate explained, was whether the divide in Iran was between the reformers (Khatami) and the hard-liners (Kha-menei), which argued for a policy of engagement; or between the people and the entire theocratic system, which argued for regime change. "From the Pentagon and the Vice-President's office, there was violent resistance to any suggestion that we should engage the Iranians," another person knowledgeable about the debate told me. He also recalled that President Bush was always skeptical of the reformers.

A senior Administration official described the anti-engagement view: "Our analysis was that the divide was between the people and the whole regime. Also, these people are ideologically hostile to us, and they're not going to be charmed out of their convictions, so engagement is a hopeless option. We wanted a muscular policy of opposition." Although no formal N.S.P.D. was issued, the official said, "The President came out closer to our side. It was resolved by the President's statements, which essentially took away the engagement option. So a lot of the issue was resolved." But the victory was less resounding than the Pentagon was accustomed to in the first Bush term, in large part because of the increasing chaos in Iraq. By the late summer of 2003, it had become clear that, while there was not to be engagement, there would not be regime change, either-at least, not in the near term. "The enthusiasm for the Iranian opposition people subsided," Pooya Dayanim, an opposition activist who is the director of foreign affairs for the Iran Referendum Movement, recalled. "What the Administration found was that there was not a rallying figure it could support. Reza was too alienating to some factions. So the idea was, forget about a name-get a movement. A pro-democracy movement. That became the referendum."

In the spring of 2003, another Iranian opposition group, the Mujahideen-e Khalq (People's Mujahideen), or M.E.K., was also trying to exploit the opportunity created by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Its situation was more complicated, as its forces were based in Iraq and Saddam had been its financial backer and protector, but this was not the first time that the M.E.K. had turned adversity to its advantage. Founded in the mid-nineteensixties by middle-class students at Tehran University opposed to the Shah, it has shifted from an eclectic mixture of Islamism and Marxism to anti-imperialism, and, finally, to its latest incarnation, which espouses democracy, freedom, and women's rights. Like the monarchists, the M.E.K.'s leaders claim that they will bring a pluralistic democracy to Iran that will be friendly to the West.

Just before the Shah was deposed, Massoud Rajavi, who as a political science student at Tehran University had been part of the group's governing committee, was freed from prison and assumed its leadership. Although at first Rajavi seemed a potential Khomeini ally, by 1980 he and the Ayatollah were enemies. (M.E.K. members were prevented, through electoral fraud, from winning seats in the parliament, and Khomeini banned Rajavi from appearing on the ballot as a Presidential candidate.) In an effort to launch another revolution, Rajavi mobilized the M.E.K. against the regime. In mass demonstrations in June, 1981, scores of people were killed or arrested and later executed. Rajavi escaped to Paris. The regime continued to target the M.E.K., carrying out hundreds of executions a month, and, with Rajavi calling for "revolutionary justice," the M.E.K., in turn, assassinated hundreds of regime officials, clerics, and judges, often through suicide bomb attacks.

In Paris, Rajavi formed the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which initially was a genuine "council," including other opposition groups in addition to the M.E.K., but the other groups subsequently dropped out. Rajavi's style of leadership was autocratic from the start, but by the mid-eighties the signs of a personality cult were unmistakable. According to Ervand Abrahamian, in his authoritative book, "The Iranian Mojahedin," M.E.K. members, especially in Western Europe, lived in communes, and each member had a supervisor, to whom he or she had to recount, hour by hour, the day's activities, which ended with a prayer and the chant "Greetings to Rajavi." Members had to surrender all their financial assets. Reading non-M.E.K. newspapers was prohibited, and self-criticism was obligatory. Those who wanted to marry had to obtain permission from the organization, which often provided a spouse as well. "In short, the Mojahedin had metamorphized from a mass movement into an inward-looking sect in many ways similar to religious cults found the world over," Abrahamian wrote. This transition was epitomized by Rajavi's involvement, in 1985, with Maryam Azodanlu. Maryam was already married, to Mehdi Abrishamchi, one of Rajavi's close associates. Rajavi overcame that fact by making the romance a matter of revolutionary necessity. First, he said that he was making Maryam his co-leader-and that it would transform thinking about the role of women throughout the Muslim world. Then, about a month later, it was announced that Maryam was divorced from Abrishamchi and that the two co-leaders would marry, in order to further the "ideological revolution." The announcement implicitly compared the marriage to one of the Prophet Muhammad's.

In 1986, the French government, eager to improve Franco-Iranian relations, yielded to demands from the Islamic Republic and expelled Rajavi and many of his followers. Rajavi went to Iraq, where he created the National Liberation Army of Iran, with about seven thousand M.E.K. troops. The M.E.K. established communes, training camps, clinics, schools, and prisons. In the ongoing Iran-Iraq war, the M.E.K. provided Saddam with intelligence on specific targets in Iran, and received arms, funds, and protection. (For this collaboration, above all, the M.E.K. is despised in Iran; several hundred thousand Iranians died in the war. "It is one of the issues where the Islamic regime and the people agree," Afshin Molavi, the Iranian journalist, said. "Language is really important in Iran. For the U.S., the government says 'Global Arrogance' "-the term has largely supplanted the familiar "Great Satan"-"but the people say 'Americans.' The government refers to the M.E.K. as monafeqin, which means hypocrite; it's a very loaded term, meaning almost a kind of blasphemy. And the people, too, casually say, 'Those monafeqin.' ")

In Iraq, M.E.K. fighters (many of them women) lived in military camps where vows of celibacy were mandatory, dissent suppressed, and any contact with outsiders strictly monitored. According to former M.E.K. members, some of their comrades who decided that they wanted to leave the M.E.K. camps were imprisoned or killed. The system of indoctrination, however, appears quite effective. When, in June, 2003, Maryam was arrested and imprisoned in France, several of her followers in Europe immolated themselves. Today, images of Maryam and Massoud Rajavi gaze out from walls in M.E.K. offices and barracks in Iraq, and adorn placards and T-shirts at M.E.K. demonstrations (as, for example, at the United Nations last September, where M.E.K. members protested against President Ahmadinejad, who was addressing the General Assembly).

As the best-funded and best-organized Iranian opposition group, the M.E.K. has a highly sophisticated and successful propaganda machine. Ali Safavi, a deft, smooth-talking Iranian émigré acts as a spokesman for the N.C.R.I., the M.E.K.'s political wing. "For years, the Saudi lobbying machine in Washington was put to use by the M.E.K.," Vali Nasr, the Naval Postgraduate School professor, told me. "Reza Pahlavi and other exiles were envious of the contacts Ali Safavi had." Despite the fact that the M.E.K. has been on the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations since 1997, the group has many supporters in Congress, including Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, who noted in April, 2003, that "this group loves the United States. They're assisting us in the war on terrorism-they're pro-U.S."

In the weeks before and after the invasion of Iraq, American and Iranian officials held talks; as with the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, there were common interests. The Americans were planning to remove Saddam Hussein, and to establish a democratic Iraq in which the long-oppressed Shiite majority would gain greater political power. The Iranians, as Shiites, heartily approved both measures. A Shiite-dominated government in Iraq would at least be friendly, if not an Iranian proxy. Iran, therefore, not only would not cause trouble for the U.S. invasion but would offer assistance in the early reconstruction period. In the course of the talks, however, the Iranians asked for assurances that U.S. forces would treat the M.E.K. members, most of whom were in a facility called Camp Ashraf, near Iraq's border with Iran, as a hostile, Saddam-backed force. An Iranian official told me that ultimately such assurance was given.

A military officer who was monitoring intelligence and communications from American troops as they approached Camp Ashraf, where some four or five thousand M.E.K. fighters were living, told me, "They were clearly a target. We viewed them as a possible ally of Saddam. But, once our folks rolled up on the camp, it was 'Wait a minute, we're going to hold up and talk.' " A ceasefire was negotiated.

In the Bush Administration, the usual factional conflict now erupted over the question of what should be done with the M.E.K. At the State Department, Richard Armitage said, "Some of us were arguing that they should be disarmed-they're a terrorist organization. And the Pentagon was arguing, Maybe we can use them in Iran. And Dr. Rice"-Condoleezza Rice, then the national-security adviser-"I heard her say one time, 'Look, a terrorist group is a terrorist group.' "

In the end, the M.E.K. fighters were largely disarmed, and were restricted to Camp Ashraf, under U.S. control; then, suddenly, they became a bargaining chip. On May 12, 2003, three truck bombs were detonated in Western housing complexes in Saudi Arabia, killing twenty people, seven of them Americans. According to U.S. intelligence, Al Qaeda figures connected to that bombing were in Iran, and U.S. officials demanded that the Iranians turn them over. The Iranians responded that they would do so, but only in exchange for the M.E.K.-terrorists for terrorists. The Administration said no.

"If the Administration had gone ahead, it would have laid the basis for discussing other parts of a grand bargain," Martin Indyk, a top Middle East negotiator in the Clinton Administration, said. In the spring of 2003, no longer in the government, he spoke with Iran's Ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Javad Zarif. "After the toppling of Saddam, the swiftness of that victory and the presence of U.S. forces on all of Iran's borders got the attention of the hard-liners. They sent signals to the Bush Administration that they might be ready for a grand bargain."

"That's nonsense," an Iranian official said. "The discussions were initiated by the United States. The idea did not originate in Tehran." The official said that the regime received a proposal through an intermediary who said that it had originated on the seventh floor of the State Department. He said that the gist of the proposal was that Iran and the United States should agree to start negotiating with mutual respect, and that each side would address the other's concerns. The official wouldn't specify details, because he still hoped that the proposal could serve as the basis for future talks.

According to Indyk, who was one of a number of conduits between the two countries during this period, "Zarif said that everything would be on the table: their nuclear program; their sponsorship of terrorism-he was quite open about it. He said they would drop support for the Palestinian terrorist organizations. But they had certain requirements, regarding their role in Iraq and in the Gulf. They wanted us to concede their dominance in the Gulf. We'd essentially be partners. And what kind of security guarantees could we provide?"

The Iranian official said that the regime responded with a counterproposal, which had only minor modifications. "And that was the end of the story. It was April, May, 2003. There was no reaction." (A former U.S. government official who had read the proposal speculated that the confusion about its provenance may have originated with the intermediaries.)

If the Administration's engagement faction had had its moment, it was short-lived, and the proponents of regime change clearly carried the day. The proposal was dropped. "Once that was off the table, the Iranians went into a different kind of calculation," Indyk said. "As we became bogged down in Iraq, we were much less of a threat, and we needed them not to play a destabilizing role." Indyk ticked off examples of U.S. actions that had benefited Iran: beating back the Taliban, overthrowing Saddam, empowering the Iraqi Shiites, and pushing the Syrian Army out of Lebanon, which left a vacuum that the Iranian-backed Hezbollah was able to fill. "The Iranians are markedly strengthened. It's a perfect storm! And all by our own actions." Indeed, the Iranian official remarked to me recently, "Since the revolution, we've never felt stronger in the region."

The M.E.K., demonstrating its long-honed talent, was wresting opportunity from this latest misfortune. Having lost its Iraqi patron, narrowly escaped annihilation by U.S. forces, and come close to being delivered into the hands of its bitterest enemy, it was promoting its candidacy as an agent of regime change. In Camp Ashraf, M.E.K. fighters being interviewed by American intelligence officials struck consistent themes, according to a former U.S. military officer. First, they should be taken off the F.T.O. list. Their forces could then assist the Coalition Provisional Authority, patrolling the border between Iraq and Iran. And, more broadly, this former officer continued, "they saw themselves as the equivalent of the Iraqi National Congress, the Chalabi group that was used so heavily in prewar planning. They wanted to be like that, and part of the solution of a new Iran." A person close to the M.E.K. said that it offered to provide intelligence, both on Iran and on Iranian activity in Iraq.

In fact, the highlight of the M.E.K. r יsum י is its role as an intelligence source. Over the years, it has made periodic claims about Iran's nuclear programs. The claims have always elicited skepticism from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the organization that monitors nuclear proliferation. In August, 2002, the M.E.K.'s political wing, the N.C.R.I., announced at a news conference in Washington that its sources had discovered that two secret sites were being built, south of Tehran, to provide fissile material for nuclear weapons. One, it said, was a plant that would be used for nuclear-fuel production, in the desert town of Natanz, and the other was a heavy-water production plant, for the extraction of plutonium, in Arak. This time, the I.A.E.A. was able to confirm the allegations, and in early 2003 the M.E.K. attained a level of credibility it had never had before.

An Iranian-American political activist told me, however, that the N.C.R.I.'s intelligence had actually come from Israel. This person said that Israel had earlier offered it to a monarchist group, but that that group's leaders had decided that "outing" the regime's nuclear program would be viewed negatively by Iranians, so they declined the offer. Shahriar Ahy, Reza Pahlavi's adviser, confirmed that account-up to a point. "That information came not from the M.E.K. but from a friendly government, and it had come to more than one opposition group, not only the mujahideen," he said. When I asked him if the "friendly government" was Israel, he smiled. "The friendly government did not want to be the source of it, publicly. If the friendly government gives it to the U.S. publicly, then it would be received differently. Better to come from an opposition group." Israel is said to have had a relationship with the M.E.K. at least since the late nineties, and to have supplied a satellite signal for N.C.R.I. broadcasts from Paris into Iran. When I asked an Israeli diplomat about Israel's relationship with the M.E.K., he said, "The M.E.K. is useful," but declined to elaborate.

While the M.E.K. fighters in Camp Ashraf were making their case to American intelligence officers, the N.C.R.I. was working its levers in Washington. In 2003, an associate from the powerful Republican lobbying group of Barbour Griffith & Rogers invited Neil Livingstone, the C.E.O. of Global Options, an international risk-management firm, and Gregory Minjack, who was an executive at Public Strategies, a Washington-based crisis-management company, to explore the possibility of getting the M.E.K. off the F.T.O. list, and to promote its usefulness. Even though the N.C.R.I. was allowed to operate in the United States, the job would have to be handled carefully, because receiving funds from an organization on the F.T.O. list is prohibited. Payment was supposed to come from U.S.-based Iranian expatriates.

For several weeks, the three companies worked on a pitch, sending representatives to meet with different expatriate Iranians who might serve as fund-raisers for the effort. Livingstone told me that he has known some M.E.K. fighters for decades. "There are a few cultlike aspects to them," he said, but added, "I like them, because they bug Iran." Minjack, who did a good deal of the legwork, learned that the M.E.K. was eager to serve as a proxy for the Bush Administration. "The M.E.K. people were saying, 'Let us be your surrogates, the lead troops-and then the disaffected will rise up,' " he said. "It was to be a Bay of Pigs kind of thing."

The M.E.K. also wanted to be the government-in-waiting, Minjack recalled, so he asked whether the organization had any documentation to show its democratic bona fides. A constitution? Statutory documents? Members gave him "a big stack of stuff," which he asked an analyst at the Hoover Institution to examine. "I wanted to see whether Hoover would give them a seal of approval-saying, if something happens, this group has the intellectual basis to fill the vacuum." The analyst declined to become involved. All this maneuvering came to an abrupt halt on August 15, 2003, when the Treasury Department shut down the N.C.R.I. office in Washington; the State Department had argued that the office was functioning as part of the M.E.K.

As the Bush Administration became wholly absorbed by Iraq, the M.E.K concentrated on making itself useful to the U.S. there. In the past eighteen months, it has provided a steady stream of intelligence on what it claims are Iran's activities in Iraq, and its Washington advocates continued to lobby on its behalf. Last summer, Raymond Tanter, a former National Security Council staff member and a visiting professor at Georgetown University, told me that he considered the M.E.K. the only opposition group capable of overthrowing the regime. He added that he had spent six hours with Maryam Rajavi in Paris, and found her to be a "very impressive woman." (Massoud Rajavi's whereabouts have been a mystery since the U.S. invasion of Iraq.) Tanter predicted that the M.E.K. would be removed from the terrorist list and used by the U.S. against the regime. "I foresee a situation where Laura Bush, Condi Rice, Karen Hughes, and Maryam Rajavi are posing for a picture in the White House," Tanter said. Early last year, at Stanford University, the three co-directors of the Hoover Institution's Iran Democracy Project-Abbas Milani, Michael McFaul, and Larry Diamond-were collaborating on an article that they hoped would influence U.S. policy toward Iran. Their perspectives were different from those of other polemicists. Only one, Milani, was an Iran expert; McFaul and Diamond were experts in the field of democratic development. McFaul had specialized in the former Soviet Union, and Diamond had recently served as an adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.

It seemed a propitious moment. President Bush, in his second inaugural address, had made democratization the keystone of his foreign policy, asserting that the U.S. would support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, "with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." Also, with the departure of Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary Armitage, the polarization on Iran within the top tier of the Bush Administration had seemingly ended.

The Hoover article, "Beyond Incrementalism: A New Strategy for Dealing with Iran," argues that American policy toward Iran has been "stuck" since 1979, and that the urgency of the nuclear crisis calls for strong diplomatic initiatives. The article attracted attention, possibly because, in addition to its boldness, it had something for everyone. It advocated regime change by means of engagement. The more contact that existed between the two countries, the authors argued, the more the mullahs would be weakened. It urged the U.S. to negotiate directly with Iran on its nuclear program. If negotiations were successful, the U.S. should state that it had no intention of invading Iran or choosing its ruler, while continuing to emphasize its support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Existing U.S. sanctions-a broad embargo that hurts the general population- should be lifted, and replaced by "smart sanctions," to target corrupt leaders. And diplomatic relations should be established-"not as a concession to the mullahs but as a step toward opening, liberalizing, and ultimately democratizing Iran."

It was, of course, an altogether different approach from the one espoused by the monarchists. The gulf between the two was illustrated even before the article was published, in May, 2004, when the Democracy Project sponsored a conference, and brought in a dozen political activists, journalists, and academics from Iran. Among them was Shirin Ebadi, the lawyer and human-rights activist, who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, and who has urged the U.S. to reject military action and to support democratic change from within Iran. Her presence inflamed the Farsi media in Los Angeles, which has grown rapidly since that day in 2000 when Zia Atabay realized that his NITV station was reaching Iran. (Today, there are twenty television and five radio stations broadcasting in Farsi from L.A. to Iran, and virtually all air the views of their hawkish listeners.) "The L.A. media went crazy, attacking the conference for bringing Ebadi here," Abbas Milani recalled. "They attacked her as an agent of the regime!"

Hamid Moghadam, a San Francisco businessman who is a co-founder of the Iran Democracy Project, is delighted that a distinctly different political voice has joined the cause. "I thought the groups that were talking to the Administration had an axe to grind," Moghadam said. "I think the problem in this Administration is that it doesn't know much about how things work in that part of the world, so it is misled by people who appear to know what they're doing. There's an absolute vacuum of ideas and thoughtful analysis. That's why we started this thing-and not just with Iranians." He meant McFaul and Diamond. "The only solution to all of this is democracy, but it cannot be dictated, Iraq style, or it will backfire. It can only be encouraged, through dialogue and open economic activity-it sheds light on all the creepy, crawly things. The youth are the key. Once they get used to economic activity and dialogue, they will expect it." More than two-thirds of Iran's population of seventy million is below the age of thirty-five.

"We hope to have some influence," Moghadam continued, referring to the Hoover project. "Condi, after all, is from the Farm." He meant Stanford. Indeed, what Abbas Milani refers to as Hoover's "conservative cachet" has provided considerable entree in the Bush Administration.

After the Iranian elections, on June 25th, an intense debate ensued about what they meant. In an outcome that confounded American, European, and Israeli intelligence agents, not to mention Iranian political analysts, Ahmadinejad, a blacksmith's son, former militia member, and arch-conservative, had been elected President. Ahmadinejad, stressing his humble background and simple life style, had run a populist campaign that focused on everyday economic issues, and promised to purge government corruption; the reform candidates had emphasized human rights, democracy, and social liberalization, but failed to address economic concerns.

On the eve of the election, President Bush had released a statement that was intended to bolster the call for an election boycott by some opposition groups. Referring to the fact that hundreds of candidates, including all the women candidates, were disqualified by the clerical Guardian Council, appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Bush stated, "Iran's rulers denied more than a thousand people who put themselves forward as candidates, including popular reformers and women who have done so much for the cause of freedom and democracy in Iran." Bush's statement may have backfired. The Iranian regime replayed it repeatedly on national media; election observers from the International Crisis Group, a worldwide conflict prevention organization, said that it motivated some Iranians to vote. The Crisis Group, which found that "by regional standards" the election "was competitive, had strong participation, and offered a broad choice," further concluded that "the current regime is not about to collapse, and any reform movement will need time to revive."

In early fall, Abbas Milani met privately with a number of officials at the State Department and the N.S.C. Milani sees himself as a pragmatist. ("Abbas represents purity of ideology-he's been persecuted by everybody!" Moghadam said.) Milani often remarks that he got to know leading officials in the Islamic Republic quite well when they were all political prisoners together, during the Shah's regime. (Milani was affiliated with a Maoist underground group, and, in 1976, he went to prison for a year. Later, he was purged from a university teaching job by the mullahs.) In contrast to some advocates of engagement, Milani has an antipathy for the regime so visceral that even hard-liners tend to hear him out. He repeatedly told U.S. officials, "The only solution is to get rid of these guys-but, counter intuitively, you have to soften the position." (He exhorted one senior official, "Do as Israel did! In 1980, there were signs all over Iran that said, 'Qom, 230 miles; Jerusalem, 2342 miles.' Yet Israel was helping Iran, sending arms.") Milani was advocating good-will gestures, such as the donation of earthquake-prediction centers, ending the embargo, exerting pressure on the regime for its violation of human rights, establishing diplomatic relations. "Talk to them-but with the purpose of overthrowing them," he urged.

The officials asked Milani what he thought was the best way to proceed on the nuclear track. He told them that he considers Iran's possession of nuclear weapons inevitable, and he is convinced that military strikes against the nuclear sites would rouse Iranians' nationalism and extend the life of the regime for many years. Moreover, he pointed out, allies of the regime-Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt-have risen to new power through the spread of democracy in the Middle East, which had been championed by the Bush Administration. "If there is a military attack on Iran, it will play into the narrative of the West as the aggressor, and all of these radical Islamists will be strengthened." He also urged that the U.S. abandon the idea of anointing anyone as the future leader of Iran, pointing out that the Shah had never lived down the fact that he owed his throne to the C.I.A., which engineered a coup against Iran's nationalist Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953. "Why would you think anything has changed?" When Ahmadinejad ventured to New York last September to address the General Assembly, he came as a diplomatic novice. But he was confident, and seemed to enjoy his international d יbut, delivering a harsh, provocative speech, asserting three times that Iran would resume the enrichment of uranium. At a large dinner on the eve of his return to Tehran, his mood was buoyant. Referring to the demonstrators outside the New York hotel, he remarked, "I was told to expect tens of thousands-but I saw only about sixty. I was even ready to go speak with each of them!" A couple of months later, a video began circulating on the Internet in which Ahmadinejad, who is said to be deeply mystical, describes the experience of his U.N. speech to a leading cleric in Iran. "I felt that all of a sudden the atmosphere changed there, and for twenty-seven, twenty-eight minutes all the leaders did not blink," Ahmadinejad says. "They were astonished, as if a hand held them there and made them sit."

Until this year, the U.S. and Europe had been divided over Iran. In 2003, when France, Britain, and Germany-the so-called E.U.-3-decided to address the Iranian nuclear program by negotiation and engagement, the Bush Administration refused to support that move, and urged that Iran be referred to the Security Council for sanctions. The Europeans' engagement effort led Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program.

Then, in early 2005, the Administration, consumed by Iraq and with little energy to spare for another confrontation, agreed to endorse the E.U.-3 negotiations. It was not an unconditional endorsement. In a move engendered by Vice-President Dick Cheney's office, according to one participant in the negotiations, the U.S. demanded that the E.U.-3 ministers and the European Union foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, sign a letter stating that, if the talks failed, they would support U.S. efforts to refer Iran to the Security Council. The U.S. also said that it would end its blocking of Iran's admission to the World Trade Organization, and would consider licensing the sale of spare parts for its aging civilian airliners. Taken together, these moves stirred hope in the engagement camp. Regime-change proponents were discomfited, but most concluded that the E.U.-3 talks would eventually fail, and the diplomatic effort would serve to legitimatize tougher action.

The true fusing of transatlantic solidarity began in August, two days after Ahmadinejad assumed office, when Iran rejected a package of European proposals and resumed uranium conversion. Iran's new chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, declared that the country would never halt uranium conversion. Iran has always insisted that under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty it has the right to make uranium fuel for civilian power reactors, and that that is its sole purpose; but two decades of deception, uncovered by inspectors, have shattered its credibility.

In September, the I.A.E.A. Board of Governors found Iran in noncompliance with a safeguard agreement that is part of the treaty, but the board was divided on the issue of sanctions; a vote to refer Iran to the Security Council was deferred. Then, at the beginning of the year, Iran went a step further. It removed I.A.E.A. seals from nuclear-enrichment related equipment and material at the Natanz facility. Enrichment can entail feeding uranium gas through centrifuges. When it is purified and processed, reactor fuel is produced; a more extended process makes the fissionable core of a nuclear bomb.

On February 4th, the I.A.E.A.'s board voted to report Iran to the Security Council. In a coordinated effort, the U.S. and the E.U.-3 had lobbied each of the I.A.E.A.'s thirty-five board members in the weeks before the vote. Ahmadinejad responded to the vote in his signature fashion, calling Iran's enemies "idiots," and the vote "funny."

"We do not need you at all," he said. "But you are in need of the Iranian nation. Issue as many resolutions like this as you want and make yourself happy."

The vote, however, was a rare display of diplomatic unity-twenty-seven to three, with five abstentions. R. Nicholas Burns, the State Department Under-Secretary for Political Affairs, noted, "The only countries that voted in favor of the Iranian position were Venezuela, Cuba, and Syria. Isn't that interesting?"

I asked Burns how much credit for the vote should go to Ahmadinejad.

"There's no question that his intemperate and objectionable statements rang the alarm bell in Europe," he said. "First, the statement that Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth-which was an extraordinary statement, in modern diplomacy. And, second, I think the Holocaust statement had an even deeper impact. The Iranians have been engaged in gratuitous Israel-bashing for twenty-five years, and there's no excuse for it, but people had heard this kind of thing before. But to have a modern leader come out and question the historical veracity of the Holocaust shocked the German public. So Ahmadinejad dug a hole for the Iranians, and he kept digging. And it got deeper and deeper as the autumn went on."

At the end of January, Burns said, "we were in London and Secretary Rice asked for a dinner with the Permanent Five foreign ministers" of the Security Council. "We had dinner at Jack Straw's house, and it was at that dinner that she persuaded the Russians and the Chinese to vote with us in the I.A.E.A." Russia and China, veto-wielding members of the Security Council, both have huge trade agreements with Iran, and both had steadfastly resisted earlier attempts to refer Iran to the Security Council. In the end, they agreed, on the condition that the referral not take place for at least thirty days, to give Iran time to negotiate a compromise. Russia has offered to carry out uranium-enrichment work on Iran's behalf, and then send the fuel to Iran for use at a nuclear power station.

What was not clear, in this dance of the West with Iran, was who was leading. When I spoke with an Iranian official last September, he laid out the options facing Iran: give up its right to a full nuclear fuel cycle; accept some demands of the Security Council, while rejecting others; or escalate. If Iran escalates, he said, "it creates a premature confrontation that the U.S. is not prepared to accept. We are in a stronger position now than we would be in five years' time under Security Council scrutiny. In this game of chicken, the chances of the other side getting out of the road are greater this way. As an analyst, I would say that escalation is more palatable than a prolonged, endemic crisis."

Among hard-line regime opponents, the new catchphrase is "Ahmadinejad is the gift that keeps on giving." In early January, Reza Pahlavi said on Fox News that you cannot negotiate with fascism, and the time has come to "support the Iranian people in their demand for regime change." The Committee on the Present Danger, a conservative Cold War-era pressure group that has been revived to address the threat of Islamist militantism, has called for regime change. Speaking at the Herzliya conference, an annual gathering in Israel of politicians and academics, Israel's Defense Minister, Shaul Mofaz, who was born in Iran, addressed the Iranian people: "Ahmadinejad, his hallucinatory statements, his criminal actions, and his extreme views will bring disaster upon you. Do what you understand needs to be done in order to prevent this." Senator John McCain has adopted a new mantra: "There is only one thing worse than military action. That is a nucleararmed Iran." Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former C.I.A. employee now with the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in The Weekly Standard that the U.S. must decide whether it truly is "intolerable," as President Bush has said, for Iran to have nuclear weapons. "If so, then we will have to prepare to bomb."

Iran has dispersed and buried some of its nuclear facilities, and there are thought to be more than a hundred nuclear related sites, devoted to a range of tasks; to attack them all, it is generally believed, would likely require many sorties and could result in extensive damage to Iranian civilians and cities. But in a recent oped in the Wall Street Journal, Edward Luttwak, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, disputed the idea that the military-strike approach is so daunting. To the contrary, he argued, the destruction of only "a few critical installations" would delay Iran's nuclear program for years, and "it could all be done in a single night."

"People say that Ahmadinejad is inexperienced, and some call him lunatic," an Israeli diplomat said recently. "I totally disagree with that. I think he is very calculated." He argued that Iran was threatening not only Israel but the U.S. and the moderate Arab regimes. "He is trying to rally the entire extremist Muslim world, to increase Iranian influence. It's a battle cry. You see Ahmadinejad's pictures today in the streets of Cairo, of Beirut. It is happening sooner than we thought, and it is a sword over the entire Arab world." (The diplomat emphasized the urgency of the situation. Israeli intelligence asserts that Iran may be a year away from what it calls "the point of no return," or self-sufficiency, to acquire a nuclear bomb. U.S. intelligence sources estimate that Iran is between five and ten years away from actually having a nuclear weapon.) Russia and China probably won't veto sanctions, the diplomat said. One likely scenario, he suggested, would be an I.A.E.A. inspections program-"airtight, intrusive, with cameras, twenty-four-hour presence of monitors, no ability to import nuclear technology." That would be supported by a resolution that invoked Chapter VII of the U.N. charter. "If Iran defies that, then it is defying the U.N., and under Chapter VII it can be forced to comply, militarily." This was the path the U.S. tried to follow, without success, before it invaded Iraq.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 15th, noted that "the weight of the Security Council, including the possibility of Chapter VII action," offered the West a new "menu of options." It was not entirely clear whether Rice was contemplating the Chapter VII provisions for economic sanctions or for military enforcement.

It is difficult to imagine the Europeans-let alone Russia and China-agreeing to a military attack. Despite all the talk of transatlantic comity, differences remain. For the E.U.-3, the referral of Iran to the Security Council clearly came as a kind of last resort. But for the Bush Administration the Security Council referral appears to have been the goal.

"We believe there is no good military option," Wolfgang Ischinger, Germany's Ambassador to the United States, said recently. If military strikes were launched, Iran's options for retaliation would be numerous: terrorist attacks, military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan, disruption of oil supplies. "At best, military strikes would only delay things, and at worst inflame the Middle East further and make it totally impossible to have a meaningful diplomatic effort," Ischinger went on. "This talk about military options is more likely to drive people into the arms of the mullahs."

Ischinger said that the U.S. should acknowledge that Iran has genuine security problems. Neighboring Pakistan, India, and Israel all are nuclear-armed. To persuade Iran that nuclear weapons aren't essential for its well-being, he suggested a regional security arrangement, like NATO, for the Middle East. "But the requirement is that the U.S. would have to start talking to the Iranians." Bush Administration officials have, understandably, been very sensitive to the observation, over the past several years, that they have had no comprehensive policy on Iran-one of the most dangerous situations facing the world today. Now, a little over a year into President Bush's second term, they can finally argue that a two-track policy has emerged. On the nuclear track, the multilateralist diplomacy that (with Ahmadinejad's help) resulted in the I.A.E.A. vote may or may not lead to a positive outcome-particularly with recent mentions of Chapter VII enforcement-but the Administration has, in any event, achieved its longtime goal of bringing Iran to the Security Council. And, once that was secured, in tandem with the E.U.-3, the Administration was finally free to pursue a reconstituted policy of regime change, or, as it now says, democratization-the policy that high-level officials so fervently believe in.

In the past few months, there have been signs of this policy's gestation. In an address on Iran in late November, Under-Secretary Burns uttered a phrase that was seized upon by regime-change proponents: "Today . . . the issue is no longer the 'moderates' versus the 'hard-liners' but the Iranian public's growing disaffection with the entire clerical system." And the President, in his State of the Union address, spoke over the heads of the government to the people, saying, "Let me speak directly to the citizens of Iran. . . . We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom." Then-less than two weeks after the I.A.E.A. vote-Condoleezza Rice, in her appearance before the Foreign Relations Committee, announced that the State Department was asking Congress for supplemental funding to increase pressure on the Iranian regime by expanding radio and television broadcasting into Iran, and helping political dissidents. Everything about Rice's message, from its center-stage announcement and its press promotion to the size of the funding request-a stunning increase from $3.5 million last year to a total of $85 million-seemed intended to proclaim to the world that the policy had arrived.

"People are arguing for a much broader approach, but we're in the narrow mode now, because the President wants to give the Europeans a shot," someone with knowledge of the policy told me, a couple of months ago. But, once the E.U.-3 track fails, he continued, "then you widen it, to support the Iranian people in their desire to be free of the regime. You reach into your toolkit, and there's a wide variety of things you can do. This is in keeping with the President's freedom agenda." He also said, "Condi completely agrees with it. She is of one mind with what Burns said," about the divide between the people and the regime.

It seemed odd, in a way, that the policy had emerged not in the Pentagon, where it was conceived, in 2003, but in the State Department, where it was opposed. It was, however, not the same State Department-Powell and Armitage were gone, and Rice and Burns inclined more toward the regime-change view. And the outlines of the $85-million program had been developed by Elizabeth Cheney, the Vice-President's daughter, who is the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. She was assisted by two Near Eastern Affairs officials, J. Scott Carpenter and David Denehy, who had worked together in the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and were dedicated pro-democracy advocates. Referring to Denehy and Carpenter, Michael McFaul, who knows them both, said, "They have fought for years now to increase these budgets. From their point of view, they've won the argument at the strategic level. At the operational level, they don't really have a good idea about how it's going to work. That's true, generally. Democracy promotion is an art, not a science."

The largest chunk, fifty million dollars, is marked for increasing television and radio broadcasting in Farsi into Iran. The current plan is to try to do this by upgrading the existing Voice of America broadcast and Radio Farda, an American sponsored station that mainly plays music. "For me, the model is Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty," McFaul said. "You would have Iranians in charge-with autonomy, getting money from the government but not part of Bush Administration propaganda. In places where we've been successful at supporting independent media-Serbia, Ukraine-there were fantastic media outlets that had real consequences for democratic change, and what is important to note is that those were indigenous outlets that sought external assistance when domestic sources were not available. That has to be the model. It can't be sitting down here on C Street, in the bowels of the Voice of America, putting on shows to talk about Bush foreign policy."

Rice's announcement had a pronounced deja-vu effect. Just as in the spring of 2003, people were starting to line up for the anticipated millions. The M.E.K. advocate Raymond Tanter, in a congressional briefing, urged that the organization be removed from the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list and suggested that-with Rice's calling for increased funding to promote democracy in Iran-"this is the time" to do so. A government team made a trip to California. State Department officials were accompanied by Ladan Archin, from the Pentagon, whose presence underscored, to some, the resurgence of the regime-change proponents. The officials met with monarchists and owners of a couple of media outlets; the L.A. crowd was in a froth of excitement, over the mere notion that "the evil State Department," as one put it, had come to see them. According to an Iranian activist, Reza Pahlavi and Shahriar Ahy were probably going to receive funds for one of the things that had been on Pahlavi's Christmas wish list-communications devices for dissidents inside Iran. All this new ferment raised the question, far-fetched as it might seem, of whether Pahlavi could possibly come to play the Chalabi-like role that had been contemplated by some factions in the Administration in 2003.

The dearth of options and of knowledge about Iran-combined with the Bush Administration's renewed commitment to regime change-makes virtually anything seem possible. McFaul turned to his favourite analogy, the Soviet Union. "If you had an argument about what the role of Solzhenitsyn would be if he were to come back to Moscow, what that would mean for politics in Russia, you would have literally hundreds of people who would have an informed opinion about that. But when we talk about Pahlavi-what the implications of bolstering him would be-we're relying on about three people to answer that. I'm not an expert on Iran-I'm a very interested student. But I have a good feeling for the community of those who claim to be experts. I say, what's the map of civil society in Iran? How are you going to support civil society if you don't even know what it is there? And that I think is the real dilemma of Iran. So I think the possibility of error not unlike the Chalabi story-is extremely high."

McFaul has given up arguing that the U.S. should establish diplomatic relations with Iran, now that Ahmadinejad is in charge; but he, like many Iran analysts, believes that the political situation in Iran is in flux. "There is a misperception here in Washington that there is a monolithic position vis-à-vis the West inside Iran, represented by Ahmadinejad. In fact, he is seen by a lot of the Old Guard as very dangerous, and the regime is very divided." McFaul remains convinced that, ultimately, the only way to make serious headway on both the nuclear and the regime-change tracks is through engagement.

When I asked Under-Secretary Burns whether, if the Iranians were to signal some readiness to compromise, he could envision the U.S. holding talks with Iran, he replied, "The Iranians have given no indication of a willingness to be receptive-none-since Ahmadinejad was elected. And, you know, Secretary Rice has been saying consistently that we are on a diplomatic track, and we are. But diplomacy has to be hard-edged. I don't mean warlike. I mean hard-edged. And so we think it's far more likely that Iran is going to respond to isolation, to sanctions, and to tough measures like that from the international community, rather than just jaw-jaw. So we believe we've entered a new phase of the diplomacy, where we have to take the Iranians to the Security Council, where we have to illuminate their transgressions, and countries have to begin to penalize them with sanctions, and other punitive measures, in order to tighten the pressure around them."