IT HAS BEEN more than two years since President Bush pronounced Iran a charter member of the "Axis of Evil." In his 2002 State of the Union address, he told Congress that the theocratic regime in Tehran was aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons and exporting terror, "while an unelected few repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom."
It has been 20 months since Bush issued a statement encouraging the thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators who had taken to the streets of Iran's major cities. "The people of Iran want the same freedoms, human rights, and opportunities as people around the world," he said, promising that if Iranians moved to replace their rulers with a government committed to liberty and tolerance, "they will have no better friend than the United States of America."
It has been four months since the president articulated a "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East." Speaking at the National Endowment for Democracy, he noted that Iranians' "demand for democracy is strong and broad," and warned: "The regime in Teheran must heed the democratic demands of the Iranian people, or lose its last claim to legitimacy."
When it comes to the liberation of Iran, President Bush's words have been perfect. When will his administration's deeds follow suit?
The United States should long ago have made regime change in Tehran a clear-cut goal of US foreign policy. At every turn, the mullahs who rule Iran have demonstrated their enmity for everything we are trying to accomplish in the Middle East. They are determined to keep Iraq agitated and unstable, and actively work to undercut US influence there. They camouflage their avid pursuit of a nuclear bomb behind a cloud of diplomatic blue smoke, one day making a show of cooperation with Western investigators, the next day demanding that the investigations end. Iran remains the world's foremost sponsor of terror, sheltering Al Qaeda thugs within its borders and dispatching trained killers to Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.
At home, meanwhile, the Iranian regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei continues to prove that elections are not necessarily proof of democracy. Last month's rigged vote took a long-running soap opera -- the political struggle between Iran's Islamist hard-liners and its supposed reformers -- to a new low. Virtually all of the 5,600 candidates running for parliament were reactionary loyalists; the mullahs made sure of that by kicking more than 2,000 critics of the regime off the ballot.
This farce of an election deserves nothing but unequivocal condemnation. Washington should be seizing every opportunity to identify the Khomeinists who rule Iran as illegitimate despots, and to make the case that their downfall is essential to the repair of the Middle East. Instead, administration officials describe Iran as "a sort-of democracy" and insist that the best way to deal with the mullahs is through engagement and patient diplomacy. When Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was asked during a Congressional hearing whether it was US policy to support regime change in Iran, his answer was blunt: "No, sir."
When is Bush going to insist that the State Department start promoting his foreign policy for a change? After 25 years of Islamofascist rule in Tehran, it is sheer fantasy to believe that anything less than a clean sweep will end Tehran's hostile policies. The mullahs may occasionally alter their outward behavior for tactical reasons, observes the prolific journalist Amir Taheri, who was born and educated in Iran. "But the regime's strategy, which is aimed at driving the US out of the Middle East, destroying Israel, and replacing all Arab regimes with 'truly Islamic' ones, remains unchanged."
The Iranian government started the war we are in with an attack on the US embassy in Tehran, and the taking of 52 Americans hostage, in November 1979. In the years since, it has had a direct or indirect role in the killing or maiming of thousands of innocent victims worldwide. Every bomb that unleashes new carnage in Iraq is a reminder that our war on terrorism will not prevail unless the turbaned thugs next door are forced from power. So what is the administration waiting for?
Toppling the mullahs would not require a US invasion. The majority of Iran's 67 million people loathe their government. Many are unabashedly pro-American. If the United States explicitly called for regime change in Tehran and backed up that call with diplomatic and financial support for the pro-democracy resistance, Iranians would respond with courage and resolve. Like the festering Communist dictatorships that collapsed when the people of Eastern Europe rose against them in 1989, the corrupt Islamists in Iran can be defeated by the men and women they have oppressed for so long.
If we are going to win the war on terror, the liberation of Iran is not an option. It is a prerequisite. The Bush administration should be saying so -- and living up to its words.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)