The ongoing showdown between young, reform-minded students and Iran's aging Islamic clergy portends Iran's likelihood as America's next major foreign policy crisis. A storm is brewing in U.S.-Iranian relations:
* Iran's leadership is actively derailing the Middle East peace process by supporting Hamas and its terrorist attacks in Israel.
* Experts inside and outside the U.S. government warn that the Islamic Republic may have a nuclear weapon as soon as 2006.
* The shadowy Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security is stirring up trouble among the Shi'ite communities of southern Iraq, which could lead to political instability and/or more violence against U.S. forces.
The United States must begin taking steps now to deal with this burgeoning problem, including supporting the aspirations of the Iranian people to throw off the yokes of their clerical masters.
Fortunately, Iran is ripe for change: 48 million Iranians (70 percent of the population) are under 30. And Iranian Gen X-ers are fed up with the mullahs' restrictive dictates. They want a more open society and accountable government.
How can you blame them?
The 1979 Iranian revolution has proven to be an abject failure. Pre-revolution Iran, for all its shortcomings, was the most advanced economy in the Middle East. But almost 25 years after toppling the Shah, Iran's Islamic theocracy has produced: 25 percent unemployment, 20 percent inflation, rampant corruption and severe social and political repression.
This isn't what the young, idealistic revolutionaries were hoping for when they signed onto Ayatollah Khomeini's coup d'etat and stormed the American embassy in Tehran.
Today's young Iranians, born post-revolution, are bravely speaking out and acting on their convictions. They have come to see the promises of political, economic and social change by the so-called reformers in Parliament as mere prevarications or outright lies - they're tired of being told to be patient.
In last week's street protests in Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan, Iranian students chanted, "There can be no freedom of thought in turbans and beards." These young students are on to something profound. Tehran (and other repressive Middle Eastern governments) should take note.
How did the mullahs react to the protests? First by blaming the United States, then by sending riot police and baseejis (pro-government vigilantes) into the streets armed with batons, truncheons, razor blades, chains and AK-47s to beat and intimidate the students. Baseejis reportedly broke into Teheran University rooms and assaulted sleeping students just for good measure.
Not surprisingly in denial, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's supreme cleric, accused the United States of stirring up the mischief. He said that America "wanted to create trouble in Iran" and "divide the people and create a chasm between the regime and the populace." As if he needs the United States to do that?
The fact is that, to date, private, U.S.-based Farsi (i.e., Persian language) satellite-TV broadcasts, along with opposition Web sites, have played a bigger role in prompting the demonstrations in Iran than any actions of the U.S. government.
President Bush, meanwhile, cheered the student protesters saying, "This is the beginning of people expressing themselves toward a free Iran, which I think is positive."
He's right -- the Iranian people deserve better.
Will these protests turn into a social movement or a broader cultural counterrevolution? Perhaps: People-power and civil disobedience helped peacefully change authoritarian governments in the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and much of Eastern Europe.
The democratic dissenters of Iran deserve our support in the hope that change can begin peacefully from the inside. The U.S. government should look for new opportunities to foment reform in Iran through bold public diplomacy.
That includes regular public statements by the Bush administration and Congress, plus 24/7 international TV and radio broadcasting into Iran and active use of the Internet directed at Iran's Gen X-ers. Congress should ensure that radio and TV broadcasts into Iran (e.g., Radio Farda) are hard-hitting, public affairs-related, and advance American interests.
Iran is simmering. The students are restless. The mullahs are nervous. The fundamentalist Islamic regime has run amok. It is deeply unpopular and its credibility is shot.
The liberation of Baghdad and Kabul puts America in a unique position to positively influence events in Iran toward greater freedom. And unless Iran changes its course on proliferation and terrorism, the U.S. government should consider embracing regime change as its official policy.
But for the moment, it is vital that we let the people of Iran know we are with them in their desire for reform through strong public diplomacy. We must not miss this opportunity to support those in Iran yearning to be free.
Peter Brookes, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, is a senior fellow for national security affairs at the Heritage Foundation.
Appeared in the New York Post