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The Clinton administration has reached an apparent dead-end in its efforts to establish a new dialogue with the Islamic regime in Tehran, despite a series of unilateral concessions over the past 18 months. The concessions, which include a relaxation of certain trade sanctions and public offers to hold a high-level dialogue with the regime, as we have reported in recent months, have failed to generate a positive response from Tehran. This prompted the State Department's top Mideast policy-maker, Martin Indyk, to complain in October that the U.S. has been frustrated in its efforts to seek "reciprocity" from Iran. ["No clear "roadmap" to Tehran," TIB 11/8/99]. Put crudely, the U.S. has offered carrots and the regime has eaten them all, but has steadfastly refused to say thank-you.
Some believe President Clinton is hoping to "open" Iran before his term expires, as part of his legacy as President. Democratic activists, close to the President, say he has expressed a willingness to devote a major effort over his remaining 14 months in office to normalize relations with the Islamic Republic and open Iran to U.S. trade and investment.
Margin: the U.S. has offered carrots and the regime has eaten them all, but has steadfastly refused to say thank-you.
All of Mr. Clinton's predecessors since Jimmy Carter have been burned one way or another by the Islamic Republic, so it is hard to understand why he feels he is smarter or better positioned than they were to overcome twenty years of hostility between the two states - unless, of course, Mr. Clinton is willing to compromise America's basic principles on the altar of trade, in hopes of paying off the $10 million in legal fees he has racked up over the past four years.
On Dec. 3, the New York Times ran a front page story devoted to the President's efforts to establish normal ties with the Islamic Republic. While offering no new information on U.S. efforts to reach out to Tehran, the Times story was seen as a signal by Iranians and by Democratic Party insiders. "Clearly this President is hoping to make an overture to Iran before he leaves office," one Clinton confidant told The Iran Brief. "This decision has been taken. Now it's just a question of how to engage Iran with our eyes open."
[The Iran Brief reported in detail on this latest round of U.S.-Iranian negotiations in our October 1999 issue ("U.S. talks to Iran"), which we faxed to New York Times diplomatic correspondent Jane Perlez at her request, nearly two months before her story ran in the Times].
Fueling the speculation that the administration is preparing a "grand opening" to Tehran was the failure last month by the State Department or the White House to react to the announcement by Royal Dutch Shell that it was planning to invest $800 million to develop two Iranian offshore oil fields. Such an investment would be a direct violation of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), signed into law by the President in 1996. If the administration were to apply ILSA in this case, draconian sanctions would be imposed on all Shell assets in the United States. ILSA sanctions would severely disrupt the activities of Shell service-stations, as well as Shell investment companies and secondary holdings in the U.S.
Just the threat of imposing ILSA sanctions has been sufficient in the past to prevent direct investment by foreign companies in the Iranian oil and gas sector. As of last month, that threat has lost its deterrent effect.
Policy shift: In the early days of "Dual containment," the new policy toward Iran and Iraq announced by Martin Indyk in the early days of the Clinton administration, the U.S. cited five areas of Iranian government behavior it found objectionable. These were: pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, subversion of neighboring regimes, human rights abuses, violent opposition to the peace process, and international terrorism.
Now the U.S. only finds two of these five character traits of the regime worthy of criticism: international terrorism, and the peace process. Significantly, the administration is now rolling them into one general theme, which is the Arab-Israeli peace process.
This is a significant policy shift. And it comes not because of any particular improvement in Iran's behavior, but from a realization in Washington that the U.S. is powerless to prevent Iran's bad behavior in the other areas. (As Ayatollah Khomeini liked to boast, the "U.S. can do nothing" to change or undermine the Islamic Republic.)
Among other things, the U.S. no longer criticizes Iran for its long-standing campaign to track down and assassinate opponents of the regime. Since President Khatami took office in August 1997, the State Department has argued that the Islamic Republic has ceased killing dissidents in Europe or the Far East. With a few exceptions (tracking down Mujahedin officers and killing them in Iraq), this is true. Instead, the regime now kills dissidents at home, as the "serial murders" of Darioush and Parvaneh Forouhar and several others in November 1998 in Tehran showed.
State Department spokesman Jaime Rubin condemned these murders when they occurred, but there was never any follow-up. The U.S. never imposed specific sanctions, or called on international organizations to intervene with the Iranian government authorities; nor has it pressed for an independent judicial investigation, or international observers, or any guarantees of a free and fair investigation.
On the contrary: after the murders, the Clinton administration launched a series of unilateral concessions toward the regime, including lifting the embargo on the trade of food and medicine, approving more aircraft spare parts, and a streamlined visa process for Iranian officials seeking to visit the United States. Ordinary Iranian citizens, including student leaders attempting to flee Iran, still find it extremely difficult to enter the United States.
Clearly, as shown by our reporting on Iranian government support for Hezbollah and Hamas over the past six months, the regime took these U.S. gestures as signs of acquiescence, and has stepped up its support for international terrorist organizations in the meantime. It has also accelerated efforts to develop long-range missiles capable of targeting Israel and U.S. military bases throughout the region, and is now developing an ICBM known as the "Kosar" which could reach deep into Europe. (The Iran Brief's extensive coverage on both these developments can now be accessed on-line through the Lexis-Nexis data base).
Our opinion: The United States has already made a series of unilateral gestures toward the Tehran regime, without any positive response. The regime has interpreted these gestures as the coin of appeasement. As a direct consequence of these U.S. gestures, the regime has stepped up its support for international terrorism, and has cranked up the repression of domestic critics, jailing even pro-regime clerics such as Abdallah Nouri.
The ruling clerics have a long and consistent track record when it comes to unilateral U.S. gestures of appeasement. On June 22, 1996, President Clinton offered through an Arabic-language newspaper in London to open a direct dialogue with the Islamic Republic. His offer was greeted with jeers of derision by the official media (and the government) in Tehran. Three days later, a truck bomb destroyed the Khobar Towers U.S. military barracks in Dhahran, Saudia Arabia. ("Clinton offers "frank dialogue" to Tehran," TIB 7/1/96).
Rather than more appeasement, the U.S. would be best advised to set out clear "red lines" of unacceptable Iranian government behavior and stick to them. The U.S. should also make clear by its actions that it will react forcefully and convincingly should these lines be violated.
For example, should Tehran continue to funnel sophisticated new weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the U.S. should take active measures to interdict such shipments on the ground. Similarly, should Tehran continue to funnel money for terrorism and subversion to Hamas through intermediaries in Jordan, the U.S. should intervene to block bank transfers and should provide timely intelligence information to the Jordanian authorities that would allow them to arrest Hamas activists working with Iran who are engaged in terrorist activities.
Human Rights should once again become an integral part of U.S. policy toward Iran. The United States should affirm through word and deed that it will hold the regime responsible for human rights abuses and domestic repression by limiting Iran's access to international capital markets. The U.S. should work more closely with other freedom-loving countries to use every possible international organization as a means of putting pressure on the regime in response to domestic repression, from the World Bank to UNESCO to the European Parliament.
Rather than sketching out further areas for future appeasement, the U.S. should be drawing inviolate lines in the sand. This is something the regime in Tehran understands - but which the Clinton White House, apparently, has never learned.