Handle with Care: Iraq We've Invaded. North Korea We Won't. That Leaves Iran, Where Most People Are Eager for Change-But Not the Kind That Current U.S. Policy Would Deliver. Here's a Smarter Way

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"YOU DID A GREAT THING!"

With that unexpected greeting from an Iranian diplomat in New York last December, my trip to Iran began to take shape. A few months earlier I had published a book that tells how, in 1953, the CIA deposed Iran's last democratic leader, Mohammed Mossadegh, and set his country on a path toward dictatorship and tragedy. Because my book honors Mossadegh, who was a secular liberal and who detested fundamentalism, I hardly expected any representative of the current Iranian regime, especially one who would rule on nay visa application, to praise it.

I soon realized, however, that this government official is one of the many Iranians dedicated to the ideals of reform and reconciliation with the West, especially the United States. Most Iranians I had spoken with on previous visits share these views. They are frustrated by their lack of freedom and their country's isolation in the world. In whatever ways they can, they are pressing for social and political change.

A couple of years earlier, while in the process of researching my book, I had had enormous trouble getting into Iran. Now, suddenly, everything seemed to have changed. The difference could only be that I had published my book resurrecting the figure of Mossadegh. Iran does not observe international copyright conventions, and my book was quickly pirated, translated into Persian, and put on sale in Iran. Readers, especially Iranian readers, might take it as a story of bow much Iran was poised to achieve under democratic rule--and how much it lost by falling under royal and then religious tyranny. For better or worse, I became associated with Mossadegh's view that democracy is the best form of government for Iran. Today's Iranian reformers also believe that, and their enthusiasm undoubtedly was behind the warm praise with which this Iranian diplomat received my visa application at the end of 2003.

Iran, however, has two governments. One is a functioning democracy, complete with elections, a feisty press, and a cadre of reformist politicians. The other is a narrow-minded clique of mullahs that has lost touch with the masses and sometimes seems to have no agenda other than closing newspapers and blocking democratic change. These governments vie for power every day. Outsiders may be forgiven for seeing Iran as a country that can never make up its mind. Should it punish the prison guards who beat a photographer to death last year, or promote them? Should it cooperate with foreigners who want to monitor its nuclear program, or defy them? Should it allow reformers to run for parliament, or ban them? Iranian officials seem to contradict themselves endlessly on these and countless other questions, changing their positions from one day to the next. Behind that apparent indecision is a constant struggle between the old guard and the democratic insurgents. One group is dominant for a while, then the other surges back.

As the time for my January trip to Iran approached, I began contacting people there to arrange interviews. Among them were powerful figures in the religious regime, some of whom seemed alarmed to learn that a journalist who had written favorably about Mossadegh was being allowed into the country. A few hours before I was to leave, I received a startling message from the Iranian diplomatic mission in New York: Stay home or risk arrest at the Tehran airport.

I will probably never know what led to this sudden change in the regime's attitude toward me, but I have a theory: Probably I was caught in the same power struggle that envelops all of Iranian public life. Those who promoted my trip and obtained my visa so quickly did so because they hoped I would help propagate their ideals in Iran. Their conservative rivals also suspected I would do that, and when they learned I was coming, they stepped in to cancel my trip.

WHAT HAPPENED IN IRAN AT THE BEGINNING OF THIS YEAR, when I was supposed to be there, reflected the same ideological tug-of-war that made Iranian officials unable to decide on such a small matter as my visa. …