Members of Congress from both parties appear to have recognized that if those who now rule Iran acquire nuclear weapons the consequences will be dire.
Iran's 1979 revolution began with the overthrow of the Shah, but it is meant to end with the overthrow of infidel dominance everywhere. Hardliners envision Iran as an oil-powered, nuclear-armed, terrorist-sponsoring colossus, straddling the Middle East while waging a global insurgency. "The Iranian nation has overcome the superpowers and is standing on the victor's podium," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said. The West, he has added, will "bow down to the greatness of the Iranian nation. ... A world without America and Zionism ... surely can be achieved."
Within Iran's ruling elite, there also are those who might be viewed as religious extremists. They believe war is necessary to bring about an apocalypse. Only when millions of people are screaming in agony will the Mahdi return to save the world. "We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah," the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of the Islamic Republic said in 1980. "For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land (Iran) burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world."
There may be moderates within the regime, too, but after the blatantly fraudulent election of June 12, 2009, their sympathies would have to be with the anti-regime dissidents, not the ruling mullahs and their SS-like partner, the Revolutionary Guards. No moderate could condone the regime's brutal response to those demonstrating against dictatorship: the murders, the hangings, the imprisonments, the rapes and the torture.
Is it possible to prevent Iran's theocrats and thugs from getting nukes without the use of military force? We don't know because no one has made much of an effort. President George Bush, preoccupied with Iraq and under chronic attack for "unilateralism," outsourced this task to our European allies who spent years talking with Iranian diplomats and making no progress whatsoever.
President Barack Obama tried extending his hand to Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They have spent the past year making it clear that they consider Obama just as "satanic" as previous American leaders.
The sanctions bills that have passed Congress would target a chink in Iran's armor: its dependence on gasoline imports. Yes, ordinary Iranians will suffer as fuel becomes scarce and more expensive. But Obama is articulate enough to explain where the blame belongs. He could add that Americans look forward not just to lifting the sanctions but also to working with Iranians in a spirit of cooperation as soon as Iran has leaders interested in such relations.
It would be useful if the president also provided both moral and material support to those Iranians who have been marching in the streets, chanting: "Obama! Are you with us or against us?"
If Congress does give Obama the tools necessary to impose crippling sanctions, will he use them? Who knows? But here's what we do know: The president has a rare opportunity to bring hope and change on a global scale without deploying a soldier or firing a shot.
In 1979, Iran's Islamist Revolution was the spark that set off the War Against the West that has raged ever since. The advent of a nuclear-armed and jihadist Iran would escalate the conflict. By contrast, an Iranian government more concerned with the welfare of its citizens than with power and conquest, would ease tensions in the Middle East and beyond. If Obama contributes to that result, he will deserve - and receive - support from both sides of the aisle.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.