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Last Updated: Monday, 16 June, 2003, 19:25 GMT 20:25 UK
Analysis: What is US Iran policy?

By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

Iran has accused the United States of "blatant interference" in its internal affairs, after President George W Bush voiced support for student protestors there.

Iranian students chant during an overnight anti-government demonstration outside the Tehran University on 13 June 2003
Tehran has been rocked by nights of student protests
The country's ruling ayatollahs also face mounting pressure - from Washington and other capitals - over their alleged efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

But does the Bush administration have a real strategy for dealing with Iran?

Listen to the hardliners in Iran, and you would think "the Great Satan" - as they still routinely call the US - has a cleverly worked out plan to sweep them from power.

But listen to the debate in Washington, among officials and in the think-tanks, and you get a clear sense that the Bush administration has instincts, views, preferences about Iran - but not a coherent strategy.

US policy is not to impose change on Iran but to support the Iranian people in their quest to decide their own destiny
Senior US official Zalmay Khalilzad

There are several reasons for this.

The US administration has wanted to do something about Iran every since President Bush entered the White House.

But following the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington, waging war in Afghanistan and then in Iraq has dominated the Bush agenda.

The result has been that, until recently, Iran has been pushed onto the backburner.

Hawks and doves

But a second reason is that on this, as on several other key issues, there are hotly debated differences within the administration over what approach to adopt.

President Bush speaks at American Medical Association National Conference, Washington, 4 March 2003
The Iran issue has so far been pushed onto the backburner for Bush

The general thrust of policy was expressed in a speech in Washington last year by a senior official, Zalmay Khalilzad.

"US policy is not to impose change on Iran but to support the Iranian people in their quest to decide their own destiny," Mr Khalilzad said.

"Our policy," he went on, "is not about Khatami (the reformist Iranian President) or Khamenei (the conservative "supreme leader")...

"It is about supporting those who want freedom, human rights, democracy, and economic and educational opportunity for themselves and their fellow country-men and women."

In addition, Mr Khalilzad accused Iran of supporting terrorist groups and developing nuclear weapons, and made it clear such behaviour was unacceptable.

Regime change?

Since then, senior US officials have reiterated their generalised statements of support for the pro-democracy forces in Iran, most recently during the student-led demonstrations over the last week or so.

Satellite image of nuclear power reactor in Bushehr, Iran
Some experts say Iran will have nuclear arms by 2006

But by themselves such words beg a number of questions.

Who exactly are the Iranians the Bush administration wants to support?

What sort of support will it give them?

And, in any case, will outside support help or discredit them?

The Washington hawks - the so-called "neoconservatives" - clearly feel the administration has not gone nearly far enough.

They favour robust action - including an escalation of diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions and support for Iranian opposition groups - to achieve "regime change" in Iran through non-military means.

'Multilateral diplomacy'

The doves share the overall feeling that the Iranian people deserve a better regime, but favour different means and a less combative approach.

They prefer multilateral diplomacy, and where necessary direct dialogue with Iranian officials, with the aim of changing Iran's behaviour.

By far the most urgent issue is the nuclear one, with a number of experts saying Iran will have nuclear weapons by 2006.

There is accordingly a growing feeling that, sooner rather than later, President Bush is going to have to decide just what the overall strategy should be - and tell Washington's warring factions to implement it.

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