(photo credit: AP [file])
The Bush administration's indecision about what it wants to see in Iran - regime change or behavior change - is hurting its ability to plan effective military steps or engage in persuasive diplomacy, according to a top Iran expert.
Ilan Berman, speaking at the Conservative Heritage Foundation on Tuesday, said that the US hasn't made that choice because it "hasn't yet grasped the fundamental threat to American interests" posed by Iran.
That also leads to some divergence between America and Israel in their sense of urgency and "how much time is left" for dealing with Iran, he said.
Though both see 2009 as the crucial date when it comes to Iranian mastery of nuclear capabilities, according to Berman, the US sees some room for rolling back the program - as it pressed Libya to do - while Israel sees it getting "harder and harder" to stop Iran's nuclear efforts.
When it comes to the choice between regime and behavior change, Berman counseled the Bush administration to focus on the former.
"I would not be a behavior modifier," said Berman, who has consulted for the government in the past and now serves as the vice president for policy at the Washington-based American Foreign Policy Council.
"I would think that any sober person" looking at the social and economic unrest in Iran today "would have to bet even money on the generation that's coming up," he said.
He noted that two-thirds of Iranian population is under 35, and that the youth are particularly dissatisfied with the regime.
And a rare public opinion poll of Iranians conducted recently showed that far fewer Iranians said it was as important to develop nuclear arms as a long-term goal as it was to strengthen the economy and normalize diplomatic and trade relations with the West.
Berman compared the situation in Iran to that of the Eastern bloc at the end of the Cold War, with frequent protests and many disgruntled minorities, suggesting the fragility of the regime.
Yet he said that Cold War weapons - like Voice of America radio - need to be refurbished to be used effectively in the current standoff.
Similarly, Berman argued, the threat of military force needs to be harnessed by exploring how specifically it could be used, though he called military action "very, very problematic." But, he said, for any US strategy to be effective, the administration needs to be able to say: "We know what you're doing and this is going to be our response."
At the same time, small majorities of Iranians say their country should develop nuclear weapons and they would live in a safer world if Teheran possessed such arms.
The survey was sponsored by Terror Free Tomorrow, a Washington-based bipartisan group that seeks to reduce worldwide support for terrorism and extremism.
With face-to-face interviewers sometimes facing arrest, the poll was conducted by telephone from a nearby country that Terror Free Tomorrow requested not be disclosed.
"They want an opening to the West and to the United States," Ken Ballen, president of Terror Free Tomorrow, said of Iranians surveyed. "And nuclear weapons, given their other concerns, are their lowest priority." The poll also showed that despite sentiment for re-establishing ties with the US, 58 percent said they support Iran helping finance Shiite militias in neighboring Iraq, some of which have battled American forces. Two-thirds said they support providing funds to Muslim groups like Hamas and Hizbullah, which the US and Israel consider terrorist organizations.
In the survey, 52 percent of Iranians said they favor their country developing nuclear weapons, with the same number also saying it's important that Iran use its oil and gas revenue to develop nuclear arms. Yet that compared with nine in 10 who supported using the money to create jobs, tame inflation, buttress the oil and gas industry and develop nuclear power.
AP contributed to this report.