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Issue No. 65, Dec. 8, 1999

Clinton administration at cross-purposes (Serial6501)



The Clinton administration has reached an apparent dead-end in itsefforts to establish a new dialogue with the Islamic regime inTehran, despite a series of unilateral concessions over the past 18months. The concessions, which include a relaxation of certain tradesanctions and public offers to hold a high-level dialogue with theregime, as we have reported in recent months, have failed to generatea positive response from Tehran. This prompted the State Department'stop Mideast policy-maker, Martin Indyk, to complain in October thatthe U.S. has been frustrated in its efforts to seek "reciprocity"from Iran. ["No clear "roadmap" to Tehran," TIB 11/8/99]. Putcrudely, the U.S. has offered carrots and the regime has eaten themall, but has steadfastly refused to say thank-you.

Some believe President Clinton is hoping to "open" Iran before histerm expires, as part of his legacy as President. Democraticactivists, close to the President, say he has expressed a willingnessto devote a major effort over his remaining 14 months in office tonormalize relations with the Islamic Republic and open Iran to and investment.

Margin: the U.S. has offered carrots and the regime has eaten themall, but has steadfastly refused to say thank-you.

All of Mr. Clinton's predecessors since Jimmy Carter have beenburned one way or another by the Islamic Republic, so it is hard tounderstand why he feels he is smarter or better positioned than theywere to overcome twenty years of hostility between the two states -unless, of course, Mr. Clinton is willing to compromise America'sbasic principles on the altar of trade, in hopes of paying off the$10 million in legal fees he has racked up over the past fouryears.

On Dec. 3, the New York Times ran a front page story devoted tothe President's efforts to establish normal ties with the IslamicRepublic. While offering no new information on U.S. efforts to reachout to Tehran, the Times story was seen as a signal by Iranians andby Democratic Party insiders. "Clearly this President is hoping tomake an overture to Iran before he leaves office," one Clintonconfidant told The Iran Brief. "This decision has been taken. Nowit's just a question of how to engage Iran with our eyes open."

[The Iran Brief reported in detail on this latest round ofU.S.-Iranian negotiations in our October 1999 issue ("U.S. talks toIran"), which we faxed to New York Times diplomatic correspondentJane Perlez at her request, nearly two months before her story ran inthe Times].

Fueling the speculation that the administration is preparing a"grand opening" to Tehran was the failure last month by the StateDepartment or the White House to react to the announcement by RoyalDutch Shell that it was planning to invest $800 million to developtwo Iranian offshore oil fields. Such an investment would be a directviolation of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), signed into law bythe President in 1996. If the administration were to apply ILSA inthis case, draconian sanctions would be imposed on all Shell assetsin the United States. ILSA sanctions would severely disrupt theactivities of Shell service-stations, as well as Shell investmentcompanies and secondary holdings in the U.S.

Just the threat of imposing ILSA sanctions has been sufficient inthe past to prevent direct investment by foreign companies in theIranian oil and gas sector. As of last month, that threat has lostits deterrent effect.

Policy shift: In the early days of "Dual containment," the newpolicy toward Iran and Iraq announced by Martin Indyk in the earlydays of the Clinton administration, the U.S. cited five areas ofIranian government behavior it found objectionable. These were:pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, subversion of neighboringregimes, human rights abuses, violent opposition to the peaceprocess, and international terrorism.

Now the U.S. only finds two of these five character traits of theregime worthy of criticism: international terrorism, and the peaceprocess. Significantly, the administration is now rolling them intoone general theme, which is the Arab-Israeli peace process.

This is a significant policy shift. And it comes not because ofany particular improvement in Iran's behavior, but from a realizationin Washington that the U.S. is powerless to prevent Iran's badbehavior in the other areas. (As Ayatollah Khomeini liked to boast,the "U.S. can do nothing" to change or undermine the IslamicRepublic.)

Among other things, the U.S. no longer criticizes Iran for itslong-standing campaign to track down and assassinate opponents of theregime. Since President Khatami took office in August 1997, the StateDepartment has argued that the Islamic Republic has ceased killingdissidents in Europe or the Far East. With a few exceptions (trackingdown Mujahedin officers and killing them in Iraq), this is true.Instead, the regime now kills dissidents at home, as the "serialmurders" of Darioush and Parvaneh Forouhar and several others inNovember 1998 in Tehran showed.

State Department spokesman Jaime Rubin condemned these murderswhen they occurred, but there was never any follow-up. The U.S. neverimposed specific sanctions, or called on international organizationsto intervene with the Iranian government authorities; nor has itpressed for an independent judicial investigation, or internationalobservers, or any guarantees of a free and fair investigation.

On the contrary: after the murders, the Clinton administrationlaunched 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 processfor Iranian officials seeking to visit the United States. OrdinaryIranian 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 supportfor Hezbollah and Hamas over the past six months, the regime tookthese U.S. gestures as signs of acquiescence, and has stepped up itssupport for international terrorist organizations in the meantime. Ithas also accelerated efforts to develop long-range missiles capableof targeting Israel and U.S. military bases throughout the region,and is now developing an ICBM known as the "Kosar" which could reachdeep into Europe. (The Iran Brief's extensive coverage on both thesedevelopments can now be accessed on-line through the Lexis-Nexis database).

Our opinion: The United States has already made a series ofunilateral gestures toward the Tehran regime, without any positiveresponse. The regime has interpreted these gestures as the coin ofappeasement. As a direct consequence of these U.S. gestures, theregime has stepped up its support for international terrorism, andhas cranked up the repression of domestic critics, jailing evenpro-regime clerics such as Abdallah Nouri.

The ruling clerics have a long and consistent track record when itcomes to unilateral U.S. gestures of appeasement. On June 22, 1996,President Clinton offered through an Arabic-language newspaper inLondon to open a direct dialogue with the Islamic Republic. His offerwas greeted with jeers of derision by the official media (and thegovernment) in Tehran. Three days later, a truck bomb destroyed theKhobar 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 toset out clear "red lines" of unacceptable Iranian government behaviorand stick to them. The U.S. should also make clear by its actionsthat it will react forcefully and convincingly should these lines beviolated.

For example, should Tehran continue to funnel sophisticated newweapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the U.S. should take active measuresto interdict such shipments on the ground. Similarly, should Tehrancontinue to funnel money for terrorism and subversion to Hamasthrough intermediaries in Jordan, the U.S. should intervene to blockbank transfers and should provide timely intelligence information tothe Jordanian authorities that would allow them to arrest Hamasactivists working with Iran who are engaged in terroristactivities.

Human Rights should once again become an integral part of U.S.policy toward Iran. The United States should affirm through word anddeed that it will hold the regime responsible for human rights abusesand domestic repression by limiting Iran's access to internationalcapital markets. The U.S. should work more closely with otherfreedom-loving countries to use every possible internationalorganization as a means of putting pressure on the regime in responseto domestic repression, from the World Bank to UNESCO to the EuropeanParliament.

Rather than sketching out further areas for future appeasement,the U.S. should be drawing inviolate lines in the sand. This issomething the regime in Tehran understands - but which the ClintonWhite House, apparently, has never learned.