408. "Iran May Present Greater Threat than Iraq." USA Today (December 10, 2002) p. 24A.

Much attention has been paid to the dangers posed by North Korea and Iraq, which this past weekend turned over a 1,200-page report to the United Nations that declared it had no weapons of mass destruction. But there's another time bomb ticking: It's in Lebanon, and Iran holds the fuse.

The terrorist group Hezbollah has moved some 8,000 Katyusha rockets into southern Lebanon in recent months. Intelligence analysts fear that on a cue from Iran's capital, Tehran, these may be unleashed on Israel. The hope is that Israel's resulting response will strain the American alliance just as it readies to strike Iraq. There has been evidence in the past of Iran's role in actions against the United States and its allies. On the night of June 25, 1996, terrorists drove a truck loaded with plastic explosives up to the Khobar Towers, where U.S. military personnel were housed near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and detonated it. Nineteen U.S. soldiers were killed, and more than 300 Americans and Saudis were wounded.

Former FBI director Louis Freeh recently told a congressional committee about direct evidence that strongly indicates the 1996 bombing was "sanctioned, funded and directed by senior officials of the government of Iran." He also reminded the members of Congress that the National Commission on Terrorism concluded in 2000 that "Iran remains the most active state supporter of terrorism."

At a time when President Bush is making his case for action against Iraq, Freeh's testimony provided a vivid reminder that Iran is another terrorist threat to U.S. security -- a threat that is being overlooked.

Indeed a strong case can be made that Iran is even more troublesome than Iraq. Take the connection to terrorists. Bush and his administration repeatedly have tried to connect the dots between Iraq and al-Qaeda, citing the belief that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague, Czech Republic, well before those attacks. Yet U.S. intelligence agencies themselves have discounted that such a meeting took place. The administration's many attempts to link Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda also have often led nowhere.

In contrast, the evidence against Iran is far clearer, and the dangers of ignoring that country carry serious implications:

* Iran has given arms and finances to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and sent a ship full of armaments to the Palestinian Authority.

On a recent 60 Minutes episode, Lesley Stahl cited evidence that numerous heavy weapons seized from a cargo ship earlier this year "may have been paid for by Iraqi oil money, but they came from Iran." U.S. intelligence agencies report that Iran has harbored fleeing al-Qaeda fighters and served as a transit point for al-Qaeda and Taliban officers to ship gold out of Pakistan into Sudan.

* If Saddam's weapons of mass destruction greatly concern the United States, then Iran's program should really give it pause.

Israeli intelligence presented the White House with data showing that Iran's development of weapons of mass destruction is more advanced than Iraq's. In recent months, Iran successfully fired a new long-range missile that could travel some 800 miles and is believed capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

* The potential for establishing democracy in Iran is much higher than it is in Iraq, where there is a danger that the current tyrant will merely be replaced by another.

I was the guest of Iranian reformers in April and May. They are the unquestioned majority of the country. Although elections are rigged (some of their candidates have been disqualified and jailed by the dominating mullahs), the reformers have repeatedly earned 70% of the vote.

In recent days, there have been several sizable demonstrations of students -- the typical leaders of change -- in Iran. They have been protesting the death sentence given to a reformist lecturer, Hashem Aghajari. But they also say their protests go beyond Aghajari. The No. 1 priority for reformers is an open society where people can freely abide by the rules of a more liberal Islam.

Iran has by far the greatest chance of becoming the Middle East's most liberal society. But we cannot wait for the reformers to win their way in an election. The mullahs, who control the military and the secret police, also are rushing ahead with the development of missiles and nuclear weapons at a rate that outpaces reforms. So we must break the hold of the mullahs and destroy their weapons facilities -- a much smaller task than conquering Iraq.

It is unclear just what the majority of the Iraqi people favor. In Iran, however, there's little doubt that a regime change would be widely considered an act of liberation. It should be noted, however, that the reformers are patriotic citizens. They would much rather have regime change come from the inside than be triggered by the United States.

But neither the hardliners nor the reformers are keen to go to battle. In Iran, every small town and village has a shrine for those killed in the 1980-88 war against Iraq. Local leaders are quick to tell you how grateful they were when the war finally ended and the nation began using its resources to build roads, water mains and other essential parts of the economic infrastructure. There is very little taste there for war.

Although there may be some quiet cooperation between the U.S. and Iran during a war against Iraq, the Bush administration properly includes Iran on its short list of "axis of evil" members. The USA has warned Iran to end its support of terrorists and stop its development of nuclear weapons, both good steps, but it continues to emphasize Iraq over Iran.

Perhaps it is just a question of time. Once the first member of the axis of evil is defanged, the United States can take on the second one with our troops already assembled in the region -- unless, that is, Iran sees what happens in Iraq and immediately mends its ways.

Amitai Etzioni is a member of the USA TODAY contributor's board and author of The New Golden Rule.


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