In his book The Persian Puzzle, Kenneth Pollack aptly frames the issue of Iran as a “race between two clocks”. One clock counts down the time until Iran enriches enough uranium to build a nuclear weapon. The other ticks off the hours that a corrupt clerical regime has left. The problem is that the alarm on the first clock seems set to go off before the alarm on the second.

A sensible way to think about policy towards Iran might be to consider ways to reverse that precedence – to stretch out the nuclear timetable, while encouraging the demise of an Iranian government bent on proliferation. Estimates of the time needed for Iran to assemble a bomb range from three to eight years. (The Iraqi example counsels scepticism about such forecasts.) Predicting the durability of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad’s rule, or the Islamic republic as a whole, is even trickier. Depending on which demise one is talking about, it could be a matter of months or of generations. But the outer edge of the proliferation schedule suggests that there may be a considerable window for political change to occur first.

At the moment, the Bush administration’s policy seems taken straight from the self-sabotage strategy book – quite a thick volume when it comes to America’s relations with Iran. Were our goal to persuade the Iranian regime to hasten its nuclear race while binding it more closely to a weary and discontented populace, it is hard to see how we could be more effective.

Especially in the past month, American policy has been more about rattling sabres than carrots and sticks. In this week’s instalment, Vice-President Dick Cheney, who actually may be twisted enough to want a military confrontation, underscored that the aircraft carrier Stennis was being sent to the Persian Gulf as a “strong signal” of warning.

Such belligerence seems unlikely to produce the result we desire, for a variety of reasons. For one, our bluster is empty. The US lacks plausible military options for nuclear pre-emption, especially now that we are bogged down in Iraq. It is also proving difficult to get the rest of the world to go along with the kind of comprehensive sanctions that would truly bite. Meanwhile, US hostility is supplying Mr Ahmadi-Nejad with an external demon for his propaganda and helping him to cover over his domestic failures. This American push for futile sanctions follows the pattern extending from Cuba to Burma to pre-invasion Iraq, where economic isolation and external threat have fuelled not regime change but regime stabilisation.

What might an alternative strategy – one framed explicitly in terms of reversing the speed of the two clocks – look like? To begin with, it would emphasise America’s preference for diplomacy over brinkmanship. Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, would embrace the “time out” deal recently proposed by Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Under this proposal, Iran would suspend uranium enrichment while the US would hold off pushing punitive measures. The ultimate settlement would involve Iran’s abiding by the non-proliferation treaty and the dropping by the US not only of international sanctions but of bilateral ones as well.

Iran’s internal political dynamics are opaque, to say the least, but conciliation with the Great Satan would probably make it harder for Mr Ahmadi-Nejad to divert attention from the costs his people are paying for his mischief-making and his inability to reform the economy. But just as important as the effort in diplomacy would be a moral challenge focused on support for human rights, civil society and solidarity with the Iranian people, who are being bled for the sake of their president’s hegemonic designs.

We know well the effect this kind of stance can have. Jeane Kirkpatrick, who died in December, first became famous for an article she wrote arguing that former president Jimmy Carter’s emphasis on human rights helped bring down the shah and usher in the Iranian revolution. As ambassador to the United Nations during Ronald Reagan’s first term, Ms Kirkpatrick herself eloquently challenged the legitimacy of totalitarian regimes. After the fall of communism, opposition leaders throughout eastern Europe and the Soviet Union testified that western encouragement – including from the BBC and Radio Free Europe – had advanced their struggle for liberation.

Mr Bush pays lip service to such sentiments, often hailing the greatness of the Iranian people and endorsing their assumed desire for freedom. But, for the past three years, the president has failed to mention in public the name of Shirin Ebadi, Iran’s Nobel Prize-winning human rights lawyer. Ms Ebadi is the closest thing Iran has to an Andrei Sakharov, but she is also a critic of the US administration. Because of sanctions, it took a lawsuit against the Treasury department for her to publish her memoirs in the US. No one in the White House raised a finger on her behalf.

But perhaps it would be worse if they had. Mr Bush, who has managed to make democracy a dirty word in many parts of the world, may at this point retain only the ability to taint by association liberal heroes who fight tyranny.

The only encouraging news is that Mr Bush’s own clock, with just 103 weeks left to run, is ticking even faster than the other two.

The writer is editor of

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