Meyrav Wurmser, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the conservative Hudson Institute, said there is a sense of urgency surrounding the future of Iran because of the wide impact the Iraq war has had upon the region.
Speaking Tuesday at a conference on the issue co-sponsored by Hudson and the conservative American Enterprise Institute and Hudson, Wurmser said U.S. policy for the region must focus on ridding it of the regimes that aim to do harm to the United States and its allies.
"If our policy doesn't focus on ... the terror masters, we are in danger of taking an American (military) victory (in Iraq) and turning it into a political failure," she said.
Although Iran has twice elected a reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, the country's Muslim clerics, or mullahs, retain the greatest control over the Islamic state's affairs. Khatami has been credited with some small-scale liberalization of the country -- mostly along economic lines -- but he has been unable to bring about the level of political liberalization hoped for by many Iranian reformers and American officials.
Polls place Iranian public opposition to clerical rule at about 70 percent, and the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are credited with increasing the pressure on Iran's "mullahcracy" to embrace liberalization. Nevertheless, political reform remains a distant proposition for Iran.
Bernard Lewis, an emeritus professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University and a well-known expert on Islam and the Middle East, said that a major fear among the ruling theocratic regimes in the Middle East, such as Iran, is that the American effort to bring democracy to Iraq will be successful and spread liberal ideas to their countries.
"A secular democracy in Iraq will be threat to the governments of Syria, Iran and other countries in the region. It is in Iran that this fear of secular democracy in Iraq is most strongly felt and with a variety of reasons," Lewis said at the conference.
One major problem for Iran's ruling clerics is the long-standing ties between Iran and Iraq, particularly among Shiite Muslims, the dominant Islamic force in Iran. Some prominent moderate Iranian clerics have already said they might move to Iraq if a more moderate regime develops there in the aftermath of the war. Iran's ruling clerics face a disaster if they loose this important base of power among the country's more liberal citizens.
Daniel Brumberg, a visiting scholar at the liberal-centrist Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told United Press International that although this would be a huge embarrassment for Iran's mullahs, the drain on their power would not be immediate.
"That long-term erosion (of power) will reinforce the moderates but that is a long term project in five, 10 or 15 years," said Brumberg. "In the short term, the hard liners will find themselves benefiting from the opportunity to (better) exchange with Iraqis."
Many analysts as well as external and internal reformers within Iran have already become impatient with the country's slow drive toward political liberalization. They argue that the United States must take a more proactive role in the process.
Lewis said that the fear of more direct American influence in the region is already resulting in the kind of militant behavior toward the United States that occurred in Lebanon.
"There is now a really serious threat, the beginnings of which we already see," said Lewis. "I feel unless something is done about it, it will become worse and worse."
There is much debate about the form that American interaction with Iran should take. While some analysts promote a reopening of ties with the Iranian government, others argue that the Bush administration should focus more intently on directly supporting reformist elements within the country.
Wurmser, a staunch neoconservative, cautioned that U.S. foreign policy toward the region in the aftermath of the war does not show an understanding of the intricacies of Middle East politics. She said that it was a "grave error" to send American representatives to secret meetings in Iran in recent weeks, and for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to go to Syria to warn its government about intervening in Iraq.
In the language of the Middle East, such acts signal weakness on the part of the United States. In the specific case of Iran, she said that when American officials deal with Iran's ruling mullahs, it undermines those who seek freedom in the country because they are the United States' true allies.
"America is those people's (the reformers') greatest hope and it is time we realize that they are our greatest hope for fundamental reform and liberalization of the Middle East," said Wurmser.
Other analysts argue that greater direct engagement with the Iranian regime is the proper response, given the limited reforms the country has undertaken. Judith Kipper, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the United States must do whatever it can to reconnect with Iran and get its government to the table.
"It is strategically important for the United States to engage openly and publicly with Iran," she said. "We have to find a way to have a bilateral dialogue."
Kipper said that United States must also find ways to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions through multilateral processes. Iranian leaders have proven unwilling to talk about this and other issues with the United States, claiming that America's messages to the country have been inconsistent.
She said that these complaints are well-founded because U.S. administrations often will say something one day and something nearly the opposite another. "They take every word we say very, very seriously," said Kipper.
Wurmser said that idea that Iran is really reforming is not only wrong but would lead American foreign policy down a slippery slope resulting in the killing of the hopes of reformers in the country.
Brumberg said there is a middle ground between these two points of view. He noted that there are ways to engage the current regime that stop short of a revival of formal relations, such as finding common ground on a framework of security issues, including non-proliferation concerns.
He said that at the same time, American foreign policy should focus on supporting the reformers within the country and moderate Islamic leaders within Iran. However, this doesn't mean that the United States can overtly support reformers in Iran, because that could make them look like stooges of the United States.
"We have to do our best to make sure the hard-line clerics in Iran do not prevail, that they are isolated," he said.
"That itself will further the cause of moderates in Iran, but the reformers there will have to push even harder for more liberation of a system that will probably remain autocratic for a long time to come."