All Writings
August 30, 1999

Containing Iran Undermines Our Interests

Much has changed since the Iran revolution in 1979, but we have failed to change with time. Continuing our policy of containment and sanctions against Iran, not only undermines our strategic interests in the Gulf, it strains our relationship with our allies inside and outside the region.

Although the anti-American reflex remains powerful among Iran's ultrareligionists and many conservative members in Congress are still haunted by the memory of the U.S. hostages and take the Iranian establishment's vituperations against us at face value, we cannot let hardliners on both sides determine our policy and thereby jeopardize our interests. But based on the presumption that it is up to the clergy to come to grips with U.S. demands, the Clinton administration appears willing to live with the tortoiselike progress that has ensued since Mohammad Khatami's election as President of Iran two years ago. Our government charges that Iran (a) actively seeks to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD); (b) supports terrorism to undermine the interests of the United States and its allies; (c) engages in subversion of governments friendly to the United States; (d) violently opposes the Arab-Israeli peace process, and (e) actively attempts to undermine our presence in the Gulf. There is no question that Iran has previously been guilty to a high degree of all these charges. If we want to hold Iran accountable for past misdeeds, then, probably we should change very little in our current policy of containment and sanctions.

But, as instructive as the past may be, we must not rely solely on our prior experience with Iran to chart a future course of action. Changes in Iran have accelerated since Khatami's election as President. The emergence of a vibrant critical press and the formation and free election of city councils, the foundations of participatory democracy, offer only two examples of the reformist movement's gains which, despite some setbacks appear, to be irreversible. The government too has too made significant progress in areas of concern to us. For example, the government has stated that it would accept a peace agreed to by the Palestinians and respect Syria's decision to make peace with Israel under any terms the Syrian government deems acceptable. In addition, Iran has eradicated its poppy crop, an action that led to the removal of its name from the State Department's list of major drug producers. President Khatami has also publically denounced terrorism and condemned the killing of innocent people including Israelis; by all accounts not a single terrorist activity has been attributed to Iran since he came to power. Moreover, he has spoken repeatedly in support of human rights, and Iran's record in this regard is better than that of most of the Gulf states. On WMD, Iran has now ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, requiring it to provide detailed information about its chemical weapons programs. Further, the government has ratified the Biological Weapons Convention and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which subject Iran to intrusive international verification and inspections. It is important to note, however, that Iran is hardly alone in the race to obtain a sophisticated weapon systems, and any criticism of Iran in this regard should be made in a regional context.

In his testimony of June 8, 1999, before the House International Relations Committee, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Martin S. Indyk suggested that we have reciprocated every conciliatory move of Iran: "We fully support the U.N. drug control program's plans to increase its cooperation with, and activities in Iran," he stated, adding, "We also continue to work with Iran in the six-plus-two forum at the United Nations on Afghanistan. We noted with interest Iran's improving relations with the Arab world and supported greater contact between our two peoples. We have streamlined our visa policies and supported academic and athletic exchanges. And we are pleased that Iran has opened its doors to increasing numbers of American visitors–wrestling teams, scholars, graduate students, and museum officials." Indyk also remarked: "President Clinton decided to exempt commercial sales of food, medicines, and medical equipment from future and current sanction regime."

Granted Iran has not met all of our demands, but we must not underestimate the progress that was achieved, a fact we should acknowledge. This progress, I believe, underscores that now is the time for us to abandon a strategy that isolates us rather than Iran; strains our relations with our European allies; undermines our efforts to contain Iraq; excludes us from exporting and investing in Iran while we forfeit the opportunity to explore major oil projects in the Caspian. Our current policy also puts us at odds with Russia over its cooperation with Iran on nuclear weapons and missile technology at the same time that it limits our ability to develop a meaningful dialogue with reform-minded leaders in Iran.

Easing sanctions and encouraging cultural exchanges, as the administration has done over the past few months, is a welcome beginning. But we need to encourage the reform minded movement by pursuing a more aggressive policy of engagement and take unilateral, and concrete steps to demonstrate our change of policy, including formally lifting sanctions and reaching a settlement on Iran's frozen assets in American banks. Such bold actions are critical now especially in view of the fact that in February 2000 Iran will hold parliamentary elections during which a showdown between the reformists and the ultrareligionists is expected. We can strengthen the hands of the reformists by our actions, and the sooner we act, the less we would appear to be meddling in Iran's internal affairs

It should be noted that, notwithstanding Khatami's efforts or intentions, neither he, nor any other Iranian leader, will be in a position to reverse twenty years of intense anti-Americanism overnight, especially as Iran remains divided between ultrareligionists and reformers. The sanctions against Iran perpetuate the insecurity of the clergy, and no friendly U.S. gesture, short of lifting sanctions will restore the confidence. I have yet to speak to a single Iranian, regardless of political affiliation, who does not recognize the clergy's continued sense of vulnerability. "It is an extremely heavy burden to be chastised by the only superpower who can effectively destroy you," one Iranian official confided in me, citing the Gulf War and, more recently, American involvement in Kosovo, an action watched closely by the Iranian regime. Given our power, Iran's only defense against us is defiance. For the clergy, then, continued defiance of the world's only remaining superpower creates a sense of power while serving as a kind of glue cementing the internal cohesiveness of the revolution. Such a belief does not mean that the revolution will unravel once sanctions are lifted. The opposite is, in fact, true. Because Iran considers itself the aggrieved party, lifting of the sanctions will accord the clergy the legitimacy they seem to need and as such provide them with the "sense of victory" that will gradually open the way to normalization of relations between the two nations.

To underscore this point, as one Iranian official at the U.N. told me, "We know how powerful America is, and as long as the sanctions remain in force, we will never be in a position to negotiate from a position of equals. Even though they are no longer effective, only their removal will restore a measure of dignity to our bilateral relations." Honor and dignity loom large in Islamic religion and culture. President Sadat of Egypt would probably never have journeyed to Jerusalem if he had not been handed a political victory by the Nixon Administration in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. By denying Israel total victory and allowing the Egyptian Third Army to remain on the east side of the Suez Canal, Sadat could claim victory. The ability to make this claim permitted him to enter peace negotiations with Israel as an equal.

The dramatic removal of sanctions will create a momentum of its own, leading to formal dialogue between the two governments. Discussions on past mutual grievances, especially the American hostage crisis and the U.S. role in the 1953 coup in Iran, should head the agenda. Dissolving the psychological hangups that these two events precipitated is a critical component in reconciling the differences between the two parties. Finally, to stress the seriousness of these renewed relations, civility must govern public utterances about each other. Although we should adapt such a new strategy regardless of who rules Iraq, for the present the better our relations with Iran–Saddam's sworn enemy–the more vulnerable he will feel.

One of the world's oldest civilizations, Iran sees itself as the center of the universe. Notwithstanding the rhetoric to the contrary, its government must accept that our military presence in the Gulf is not only permanent, but contributes to the stability of the region. Iran must learn to live with us and tolerate our presence in its sphere of influence. But it is up to us to find the modus operandi that will accord Iran the recognition sought so urgently by its clergy. We should not continue in our ad hoc approach nor be guided by the whims of some misinformed members of Congress toward a country with such a vast territory and a population of nearly 70 millions, that also occupies a strategic location with huge oil reserves. We need to also keep in mind that Iran has the largest concentration of Shiat Muslims. It is and it will remain an Islamic state for as long as we can gauge the future because religion, as an institution, is deeply ingrained in the life of every Iranian. The only difference in governing Iran in the future will occur in the extent of the clergy's hold on power. For now their reach permeates every level of Iranian social, political, and economic life, as shown by how easily they quelled the students' reform movement.

Certainly, Iran must respond to the lifting of the sanctions by fully adhering to the conventions and treaties that forbid the acquisition and development of WMD, especially nuclear weapons, and by improving its human rights record and supporting the Arab-Israeli peace process. Better relations between Washington and Tehran, however, is an evolutionary process. Only the United States as the dominant power can first change course without losing face.