(animated sunrise)Foundation for Democracy in Iran

Why Ease Up on Iran?

Washington Post, (page A25), December 11, 1996

by Peter W. Rodman

There is an understandable restlessness in the foreign policy communityto the effect that the hard-line U.S. strategy of "containing"Iran is in need of revision. The policy has failed, the argument runs;in the meantime, it is harming relations with allies and other importantAmerican interests. So it's time to shift course and, among other things,try for a "dialogue" with Iran. There are hints that the Administrationis tempted in this direction.

This restlessness, while understandable, is misplaced. It is difficultto see what Iran has done lately to deserve such a bouquet. Tehran is stillthe "premier state sponsor of international terrorism" (accordingto the State Department's own terrorism report), and some evidence evenpoints to an Iranian hand in the deadly bombings of U.S. military facilitiesin Saudi Arabia in November of last year and this past June. Hezbollahin Lebanon (an Iranian protege) helped topple Shimon Peres's governmentin Israel by its terrorism last spring; Iran also is accused of involvementin the assassination attempt against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak inEthiopia in June 1995 and in recent Islamist agitation in Bahrain. Thefatwa (death sentence) against British novelist Salman Rushdie is stilloutstanding. Meanwhile, Iran continues its clandestine pursuit of nuclear,chemical, and biological weapons while purchasing North Korean ballisticmissiles to deliver them. Iran's ideological thrust remains a destabilizingforce in the entire Middle East.

The holes in the present U.S. policy are there for all to see. Mostdiscouraging is the weak cooperation we are getting from Europe and Japan(let alone Russia and China) in our effort to restrain Iran's military,economic, and technological buildup. Our allies are reacting angrily tothe recent U.S. sanctions legislation (D'Amato-Gilman) that penalizes companiesdoing business with Iran. There is also an interesting new geopoliticalwrinkle: Newly independent Central Asian countries such as Azerbaijan,in whose survival we have a strategic stake, are struggling to escape dominanceby Russia as well as Iran; they need outlets to get their energy resourcesto market, and our attempt to quarantine Iran puts them in a bind. Thecomplete absence of U.S. diplomatic contact with Iran, moreover, seemsartificial: We had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union through mostof the period we were also "containing" it.

But these are questions of tactics. If the Europeans and Japanese werereally willing to tighten the screws on Iran in a serious way, we mighthave something to discuss with them about a more coordinated approach.But at bottom they simply resist the idea of limiting their trade, andthus any easing of U.S. pressures on them is likely to be only a U.S. retreat,with little compensating gain. The plight of the Central Asians is a genuinedilemma, but there may be ways to help them without collapsing our Iranpolicy (and there are pipeline options that bypass both Russia and Iran).

As for "dialogue," a diplomatic contact in itself would notbe the end of the world. But its benefit is also vastly overrated. TheUnited States and Iran oppose each other because they understand each otherall too well; it is the height of naivete to think it's all just a "failureof communication." On the downside, a high-level U.S.-Iranian diplomaticcontact would be a dramatic event capturing the headlines; in the presentenvironment it would be universally interpreted as a collapse of the Americanpolicy under international pressure. (This could be mitigated, in theory,if accompanied by a redoubling of all other U.S. pressures on Iran -- includingvigorous enforcement of D'Amato-Gilman. But it's doubtful that this Administrationcould pull this off.)

Whatever the tactics, the present strategy still seems the best available.Call it "containment," or whatever, it is a strategy of maximizingpressures on a militantly hostile regime -- weakening it to the extentpossible, keeping it off balance, compounding all its problems. It's along-term policy. And it's having an effect. Iran's economy, depressedby low oil prices, is seriously squeezed by the slowdown of new internationallending (blocked by the U.S.). The value of Iran's currency -- as is thevolume of its arms import. Dissension in the country has reached such proportionsthat even analysts unsympathetic to U.S. policy have questioned the long-termsurvival of the Islamic revolutionary regime. (There was rioting in westernIran all last week.) The Europeans and Japanese are in fact cooperatingquietly with us in restricting weapons sales and transfers of the mostadvanced technology, as well as new credits. All this looks like vindicationof the U.S. strategy.

The alternative policies urged (or implied, since not all critics of"containment" are explicit about their recommendations) are incoherent.What would relieving Iran of pressures accomplish? What is the evidencethat this leniency would change the regime's behavior or its deeply heldideological convictions, and not just give it greater freedom of actionto continue doing what it eagerly seeks to do (i.e., undermine Westernpositions in the region)? How do we know that a conciliatory turn wouldn'tjust be taken in Tehran as vindication of its present radical line? Thereis more wishful thinking here than evidence or analysis.

This is the optimistic rationale, for example, of the European Union'spolicy of "critical dialogue" with Iran -- in which Europe conductsnormal commerce with Iran in the hope of moderating its behavior. LastApril, a troika of EU foreign ministers visited Tehran hoping to obtainan official statement from the Islamic Republic condemning terrorism; theycame home empty-handed. The farcical level that this policy can reach ismost evident in Germany: In 1993 Iran's Minister of Intelligence and Securitywas welcomed in Bonn as a state guest; in 1996, he is the subject of anarrest warrant from a German court in connection with terrorist murdersin Berlin, and the mullahs are now threatening a fatwa against the Germanprosecutors. Is this the brilliant policy we are to emulate?

It's a mystery to me where the impatience is really coming from. Thepresent U.S. policy is clearly more of a burden on Iran than on the UnitedStates. Why are we so restless? "Containment" of the Soviet Union,in George Kennan's classic 1947 exposition, called for patience above all.A shift in Administration policy is also likely to trigger a reaction inCongress, where the majority sentiment is that the law should be enforcedand given a chance to work. After all, the displeasure of our allies comesnot from their conviction that the new sanctions won't have an economiceffect, but from a fear that they will: European companies are now morewary of doing business in Iran. We should keep our cool.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------Peter W. Rodman, a former White House and State Department official, isDirector of National Security Programs at the Nixon Center for Peace andFreedom. Mr. Rodman also serves as a member of FDI's board.