Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- It means something in foreign policy circles when realists and idealists converge on a policy -- as they are beginning to do on Iran.

Realists -- think Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger -- assert that only the external behavior of a regime is of direct concern to America; its habits of repression matter little to the national interest. Idealists -- think Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush -- believe that the internal nature of a regime eventually determines its external behavior; a government that represses its people is more likely to be aggressive and destabilizing, so American interests are served by the spread of democratic ideals. Somewhere in the compromise between these views, U.S. foreign policy is formed.

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I consider myself a foreign policy idealist. My former colleague in the Bush administration, Richard Haass -- now president of the Council on Foreign Relations -- describes himself as a "card-carrying realist." But Haass might also be called a principled realist. He believes that the diplomatic engagement of repressive regimes must be justified by outcomes. And the benefits of engagement with the Iranian regime have been slim.

In a recent Newsweek essay, Haass argues that Iranian nuclear ambitions are unmasked, that nuclear negotiations have failed, that the Green Revolution is more viable than many first thought, and that promoting "political change" in Iran -- regime change -- is a now a strategic opportunity. This change would not solve every problem between America and Iran -- some in the Iranian opposition support their country's nuclear ambitions -- but a more representative regime would certainly be less aggressive, less tied to terrorism and more open to international influence.

For some Americans, the idea of regime change is tainted by the Iraqi invasion and occupation. But there is also the model of South African regime change, overturning apartheid with massive international pressure, and Polish regime change, aided by covert American support for unions and democratic resistance.

No one argues that the Iraq model should apply to Iran. But is Iran ripe for the South African or Polish approaches? Part of the answer may come on Feb. 11 -- the anniversary of Iran's Islamic revolution -- when the democratic resistance has called for another round of mass protests.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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