Man, was I wrong about Iran.
I thought this regime was powerful and self-confident, and actually felt strengthened since we destroyed its two main enemies - the Taliban and Saddam. That could not be further from the truth. This Iranian regime is afraid of its shadow. How do I know? It recently arrested a 67-year-old grandmother, whom it accused of trying to bring down the regime by organizing academic conferences!
Yes, big, tough President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - the man who shows us how tough he is by declaring the Holocaust a myth - had his goons arrest Haleh Esfandiari, a 67-year-old scholar, grandmother and dual Iranian-U.S. citizen, while she was visiting her 93-year-old mother in Tehran. Do you know how paranoid you have to be to think that a 67-year-old grandmother visiting her 93-year-old mother can bring down your regime? Now that is insecure.
It's also shameful. Esfandiari directs the Middle East program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. She went to Iran in December to visit her aging mother - a trip she's made regularly for the past decade. According to her husband, Shaul Bakhash, himself a renowned Iran expert in the United States, while Haleh was traveling to the Tehran airport Dec. 30, to return home, she was stopped by three masked, knife-wielding men - Iran's Intelligence Ministry always needs three men and three knives when confronting a grandmother - and they stole her belongings and her U.S. and Iranian passports.
This was followed by six weeks of intermittent questioning by Iran's Ministry of Intelligence. Then, on May 7, Esfandiari was arrested.
On Tuesday, she was formally charged with "endangering national security through propaganda against the system and espionage for foreigners," an Iranian spokesman said - apparently because of her work organizing academic conferences of Iranian and U.S. experts.
Why does Iran's leadership do such a thing? Because its hard-liners fear relations with the United States and want to scuttle the Iran-U.S. dialogue that began last week in Baghdad. Just like Castro's Cuba, Iran's mullah dictators thrive on their clash with the United States. The conflict gives them status among anti-U.S. countries, our sanctions allow them to explain away their poor economic performance, and U.S. "threats," both real and imagined, allow them to crush all legitimate dissent by labeling it part of a U.S. conspiracy.
What to do? Obviously, one option is a military strike combined with fomenting revolution. But that could easily leave us with another unstable, failing state in the Middle East. I don't want to create another boiling Iraq. A second option would be more economic sanctions to change the regime's behavior. The third option is engagement aimed at restoring relations.
Alas, the Bush Iran policy has dabbled in all three, but never committed itself to one, and, as a result, Iran's hard-liners have been strengthened. The only way out of our corner now is to get some leverage. And leverage can come only from stepped-up economic sanctions - particularly doing something to bring down the price of oil, Iran's lifeblood - combined with aggressive engagement, like declaring that we don't seek the toppling of the regime and that we are ready, if Iran curbs its nuclear program, to restore full diplomatic and economic ties the next day.
In other words, our only hope of either changing this Iranian regime or its behavior, without fracturing the country, is through a stronger Iranian middle class that demands a freer press, consensual politics and rule of law. That is our China strategy - and it could work even faster with Iran. The greatest periods of political change in modern Iran happened when the country was most intensely engaged with the West, beginning with the constitutional revolution in 1906.
Unfortunately, the Bush strategy - diplomatic/economic isolation plus high oil prices - has only frozen the regime in power and transformed it from mildly repressive to a KGB state with a nuclear program. So now we face an Iranian regime that is both powerful and paranoid.
It has the resources to snub the world and its own people's aspirations. Yet, no matter how much this regime tries to buy off its people with oil money, it knows that many despise it. It's actually afraid of its own people more than anyone - so afraid it even criminalizes scholarly exchanges between Iranians and Americans that the regime can't control.
That's why a 67-year-old grandmother - whose only crime is getting people together in public to talk about building a better Iran - is such a threat.
Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, can be reached at New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.