Right-wingers in Washington have begun preparing the ground for US action, perhaps even war, against Iran. Their mostly baseless allegations against Iraq–of developing nuclear weapons and backing Al Qaeda–worked so well in whipping up war fever that the inside-the-Beltway hawks are now recycling them. This time Teheran is the mark.

Neoconservative William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, wrote that “the liberation of Iraq was the first great battle for the future of the Middle East.” He added, “The next great battle–not, we hope, a military battle–will be for Iran.” In an ironic reversal of the old domino theory, Kristol now argues that America must take down Iran to prevent it from intervening among Shiites in US-occupied Iraq. One intervention requires the next. But in fact, more Iraqis seem interested in radical Shiism than do Iranians.

Iran is charged with harboring Al Qaeda. But Al Qaeda and the Taliban waged a vicious campaign of assassination and pogroms against Shiites in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and came close to war with Shiite-dominated Iran. Iran’s Sunni tribes or rogue elements in the Revolutionary Guards might give refuge to Al Qaeda. It is highly unlikely that the Iranian establishment would.

Neoconservatives tag Iran as a backer of terrorism because of its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has, however, been many years since Hezbollah was significantly involved in international terrorism, as opposed to fighting Israeli military occupation of Lebanon and then of the disputed border enclave, the Shebaa Farms. An equitable settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would deprive its paramilitary of a raison d’être. That’s a better way to encourage its evolution into a mainstream Lebanese political party than fomenting revolution in Teheran.

As for the charge that Iran is interested in nuclear weapons, it may or may not be true. Since we were misled by fraudulent documents about a post-1998 Iraqi nuclear program, we should demand unassailable proof of Iranian capabilities before even discussing what steps should be taken to address them.

Iran itself is a far more ambiguous dictatorship than Baathist Iraq. Its society is roiled by a lively contest between hard-line Khomeinist theocrats and a gamut of reformist forces that wish to open the system up to democracy and to achieve more personal liberties. The liberalizers have captured Parliament and have a friend in the elected President, Muhammad Khatami. They have been stymied in their attempts at reform since 1997, however, by the iron grip that hard-line clerics retain on the levers of power. The Supreme Jurisprudent, Ali Khamenei, controls the judiciary; appoints much of the Guardian Council, which reviews parliamentary legislation; and serves as commander in chief of the armed forces. The hard-liners have closed dozens of reformist newspapers and jailed editors, reporters and even parliamentarians.

President Khatami has deeply frustrated many reformists by his seeming unwillingness to take on the hard-liners despite his enormous popular mandate. After the political violence of the late 1970s and ’80s, Khatami does not wish to risk civil war. He himself is rumored to have been the target of a foiled assassination plot by rogue Revolutionary Guards.

Even in a town with as short a historical memory as Washington, surely some sense of déjà vu must attend these fevered dreams of destabilizing the Iranian government. In 1953 the CIA overthrew the elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, and reinstalled on the throne Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. The shah was ever after regarded as a foreign imposition, and this lack of legitimacy made him vulnerable to being overthrown by the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

There is a real danger that the Washington hawks will undermine the reformist movement in an Iran still touchy about foreign intervention by making the liberals look like Western puppets. Iranian hard-liners have been warning for decades about evil American intentions, and the US hawks inside and outside the Defense Department are only playing into their hands and giving them credibility with this saber-rattling. The Iranian electorate could easily swing to the right in the face of such imperialism.

In 1998 President Khatami called for “a dialogue of civilizations” and suggested people-to-people diplomacy between Iran and the United States. The Bush Administration has been uninterested in such efforts. If America is sincere about support for democracy in Iran, it could profitably respond to Khatami’s call. The Administration has a choice of repeating the mistakes of 1953 and heavy-handedly intervening in Iran’s complex political evolution, or of replicating the achievement of Nixon in opening up China. The latter course may not lead immediately to a democratic Iran, but neither does it risk unleashing a new wave of terrorism against the United States if the chickens come home to roost. They usually do.