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Because of its undulating politics, Iran poses a foreign policy dilemma for the U.S., complicated by Tehran's suspected interest in obtaining a nuclear bomb. While Kerry has said he would be willing to negotiate with Iran's ruling clerics about the possibility of allowing the country to keep its nuclear facilities for peaceful purposes, some members of the Bush Administration have argued for tough sanctions and increased isolation if Iran fails to abandon its nuclear program completely. Such an approach could backfire, however, by stiffening the hard-liners' opposition to further political reform. The mullahs who run Iran have no desire to preside over the first Islamic democracy. Last February, before scheduled parliamentary elections, they disqualified almost all the reform candidates. But the true sentiment of the people may have been reflected in the low turnout: 70% of urban Iranians boycotted the election. Though they currently possess little formal political power, pro-democracy advocates cite that figure as proof that democratic reform is inevitable. Hamid Reza Jalaipour, one of Iran's foremost reformists and a professor at Tehran University, says democratic reform is inevitable. "The ideological state doesn't have a strong hold on people. Liberal Islam and democracy will win because they are far more widespread among Iranians. They're more in line with their views and lives." If Jalaipour is right, the ripple effects could be enormous. "In the gulf states alone, it would be felt very powerfully, and the gulf is the cockpit of the Middle East," says Princeton's Doran. Precisely because Iran is where Islamic radicals first took power in a revolution 25 years ago, a counterrevolution now would create huge waves in the region.
SAUDI ARABIA As much as the West hopes for a breakthrough in Iran, change remains depressingly distant in many other key Islamic states, including Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest financier of fundamentalist Islam and the home of bin Laden and 15 of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Since about 1750, when Mohammed bin Saud struck an alliance with the puritanical Islamic preacher Abdul Wahhab, the kingdom's government has effectively been joined at the hip with the austere, deeply conservative brand of Islam known as Wahhabism. Modern-day oil riches, as well as the al Saud family's desire to remain in power, mean that Wahhabi clerics have had both the freedom and the funds to spread their intolerant and anti-Semitic creed with impunity, pouring billions into the establishment of Wahhabi schools and mosques around the world.
At home, the clerics and their supporters within the divided ruling family have stifled reforms. In March, when the country's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, announced plans for the country's first municipal elections, he encountered a revolt led by his Interior Minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, a conservative who is third in line to the Saudi throne. Prince Nayef's men arrested 14 moderate writers and professors, several of whom had actually met with the Crown Prince to discuss his agenda. As a result, Abdullah's proposed reforms have been stalled.