Buy One -- Get One Free

Students in Iran are rebelling against the ayatollahs. Is there anything we can do to help? The truth is we have very few tools to influence events in Iran, and even if we had more it's not clear we'd know how to use them. But there is one huge tool we do control that will certainly have an impact on Iran: It's called Iraq.

Iraq, like Iran, is a majority Shiite country, with myriad religious links with Iran. If the Bush team could make a psychological and political breakthrough with Iraqi Shiites, and be seen as helping them build a progressive, pluralistic state in Iraq, it would have a big impact on Iran -- much bigger than anything the United States alone could say or do.

No one should have any illusions that Iran's Islamic theocracy is about to fold tomorrow. Iran's clerical rulers are tough and ruthless and have a monopoly on power. But many of their people detest them. And while Iran will play out by its own logic, there is no question that if the other big, predominantly Shiite state in the region, the one right next door, the one called Iraq, were to become a reasonably decent, democratizing polity of the sort Iranians are demanding for themselves, it would pressure Iran's clerics to open up.

A friend in Tehran sent me an e-mail message Thursday, saying, "The Iranian state-run TV is just reporting how Americans have failed in Iraq. [But] average people, like my grocer, actually think Iraq and Afghanistan have become heaven. It seems that they come up with the opposite version of what the government is trying to tell them. My grocer keeps on saying, 'When are the Americans coming here? They fixed Afghanistan and Iraq and we are still miserable.'"

We do not want the story in Iran to be America versus the ayatollahs. We want the story to be the Iranian people versus the ayatollahs, and the best way to foster that is by showing Iranians that there is another way and it's happening right next door. In short, the United States' intervention in Iraq is a two-for-one sale: Improve Iraq, improve Iran. Buy one, get one free. Mess up one, mess up the other.

So then, how do we forge a breakthrough with the Shiites of Iraq, who make up 60 percent of that country? Let's start with some good news. While the U.S. forces in Iraq are meeting mounting resistance from the remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime, these are primarily Iraqi Sunni Muslims who sense that their long hold on power in Iraq is over.

"The fact is, the Iraqi Shiites have clearly decided to give the Americans a grace period to see how they intend to rebuild Iraq," says Yitzhak Nakash, a Brandeis University professor whose book, "The Shi'is of Iraq," is one of the most important works on this subject. "Iraqi Shiite religious leaders have thus far not issued any fatwas against the U.S. troops. They have adopted a wait-and-see approach."

Just last week Abdelaziz al-Hakim, a key Iraqi Shiite leader, gave an interview to the Al Hayat newspaper in which he stressed that Iraqi Shiites were not under the control of Iran and had no intention for now of engaging in violent resistance to the U.S. forces in Iraq.

This grace period from Iraqi Shiites is the most important thing happening in Iraq, and the United States needs to take advantage of it. The United States could start, Nakash suggested, with President George W. Bush apologizing for the fact that the United States, in 1991, encouraged Iraqi Shiites to rise up against Hussein, and then abandoned them, leading to the slaughter of thousands of Shiites in southern Iraq. Visible gestures from the world's only superpower -- affirming the dignity of the Iraqi Shiites and their right to a share of power in proportion to their numbers -- could help lock in this grace period and foster a mass base for moderate Shiite politics.

What the United States also needs to do, Nakash argued, is "create conditions for the Shiites of Iraq to experiment with defining relations between religion and politics. Their challenge will be to find a compromise allowing clerics in the seminaries of Najaf to focus on matters relating to religious worship and learning -- and have their impact on society felt that way -- while leaving politics to the politicians in Baghdad."

Bottom line: We need to get Iraq right before we raise expectations about Iran, and getting Iraq right will be hard. But the key to getting Iraq right is getting the Shiites on our side -- if not openly, at least tacitly -- while helping them nurture a progressive political system. Do that, and it will encourage Iranians to do the same. Fail to do that, and we will lose in both Iraq and Iran.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times, where this comment first appeared.