President Khatami's call in his CNN interview on January 7, 1998, for "dialogue and understanding between two nations" has renewed the now decades-old debate concerning U.S. relations with Iran. To sort through the options, the Middle East Quarterly sponsored a discussion of this question in Washington on March 18, 1998. Patrick Clawson is director for research of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Geoffrey Kemp is director of Regional Strategic Programs at the Nixon Center. Edward Shirley is the pseudonym of a former Central Intelligence Agency official, Reuel Marc Gerecht, now an independent analyst. Kenneth Timmerman is publisher of the Iran Brief. Daniel Pipes moderated the discussion.
Iran as a Danger
Middle East Quarterly: In a recent interview, Senator Sam Brownback, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, said that "Iran today presents the most clear and present danger in the whole world" to the United States. Do you agree?
Kenneth Timmerman: Terrorism and violent opposition to the Middle East peace process indicate a clear intent on the part of the Iranian leadership to see itself as an ideological counterpart and adversary to the United States. Even President Khatami has joined the call from Supreme Leader Ali Khamene'i and from Revolutionary Guards commanders, calling for the United States to withdraw from the Persian Gulf — presumably to make way for Iranian hegemony. Add to that the development of a long-range ballistic missile program — very far advanced with Russian help — and a nuclear weapons research, and you have a very, very serious threat.
Patrick Clawson: It's hard to describe Iran as the greatest threat to the United States when Iraq clearly has more immediate and more aggressive intentions. But the Islamic Republic presents an ideological threat that cannot be taken lightly. And it has shown a willingness to engage in activities in countries as far-flung as Bosnia and Lebanon, quite possibly sponsoring attacks in Argentina, and stalking American diplomats in Tajikistan. These activities represent a wider range of terrorist threats to the United States than seen from other state sponsors.
MEQ: You agree with Senator Brownback, then?
Clawson: I would phrase it differently: Iran is unique in terms of the potential danger, the geographical range, and the types of terrorist activities it sponsors.
Geoffrey Kemp: How can anyone believe the Islamic Republic poses a greater threat to the United States than Russia or China? We're talking about a hypothetical threat years out. Under those circumstances you could construct a worst-case analysis. But I could construct a worst-case analysis for Russia or China that is infinitely more frightening from an American point of view.
Edward Shirley: Iran's a problem, and depending upon the issue it can be a serious problem, but it is under no circumstances the major threat to the United States in the world today. That is an exaggeration.
Turning Iran into the leading threat to the United States, by the way, makes the day for some clerics in Tehran and Qom, men who otherwise have so little to look forward to. That type of statement makes them feel good.
MEQ: Many in Iran aspire to just that status?
Shirley: Oh, absolutely. If they can get an undeserved compliment, they'll take it very quickly and even say thank you.
MEQ: How does Iran threaten American interests?
Timmerman: Through terrorism and the undermining of moderate governments supportive of the United States. The regime has a clear track record of opposing Western interests and other regimes that are pro-Western wherever they may be around the world. It has been publicly involved in trying to subvert a whole slew of neighboring regimes, most recently in Bahrain and Pakistan, where the Iranian government is involved in stirring up sectarian violence. In contrast, the Iranians have been quite cooperative with the Russians by not getting involved in certain conflicts—Chechnya comes to mind—and cooperating in other areas, such as Tajikistan.
Kemp: We need to be more careful about using the term Iranian terrorism. Some elements in Iran will be more than happy to engage in acts of terror against Americans, particularly if Khatemi's rapprochement appears to be working; but others will not. One also has to distinguish between various types of terrorism. It's one thing to organize tactical operations, another to provide an umbrella resource for other countries' terrorists or other groups' terrorists—such as providing passports, access to embassies.
Clawson: Exactly. That is why the targeting, tagging, and following of American diplomats by officials of the Iranian government that took place in Bosnia and Tajikistan in fall 1997, after Khatemi's election, is so disturbing. It crosses precisely the line that Geoff is drawing.
Timmerman: There's an overwhelming record of Iranian state-sponsored terrorism in the past fifteen years. The list of Iranian sponsored terrorist attack is many pages long.
Shirley: The Islamic revolution in Iran has passed into its Thermidor phase. Iranians have grown tired of the colorless revolutionary order that has so little in common with their culture. Persia is an immensely nuanced and contradictory land, where ugliness and beauty, good and evil, profound faith and ribald disbelief had co-existed in a relatively tolerant balance for ages. The Islamic revolution tried to destroy this balance, to remake ideologically the Iranian man and woman by imposing on them a rather inflexible religious identity that denied them any joy in their abundant human foibles, peccadilloes, and sins.
We are now watching faithful revolutionaries—and I would include Khatami among them—try to, in a sense, escape from the revolution. They are desperately trying to find some compromise between those beliefs that propelled them into revolution and the realization that these beliefs are at war with so much that they cherish in Persian life.
Iran's is a dying revolution, if not a dead revolution, and dying revolutions can always be dangerous. Even when the medieval Shi'i dynasty of the Fatimids was nearly finished in Egypt, it was still sending out troublesome missionaries, a branch of whom became the Assassins. The Iranians could quite conceivably engage in new nefarious activities—particularly terrorist activities, which are always good bang for the buck.
MEQ: How credible is American deterrence?
Timmerman: What deterrence? There is a problem with U.S. credibility. Take the June 1996 attack against U.S. forces at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed nineteen servicemen. There is much to suggest the Iranians were behind it, but neither the U.S. or Saudi governments have taken retaliatory measures. On the contrary, the Saudis have engaged in a rapprochement with Tehran, something we seem to favor. Likewise, the Islamic Republic has paid no price for its involvement in bombings in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for its repeated efforts to undermine the government of Kuwait during the 1980s, or for its involvement with the Shi'a of eastern Saudi Arabia.
Shirley: We're not going to take retaliatory actions against Iran unless intercept material exists and we would know by now if it did exist for Khobar Towers. If we do have intercepts, then retaliation would be called for. Barring intercepts, it's inconceivable that any U.S. administration would countenance a reprisal. If they choose to engage in terrorist activity, it's a serious problem. But it's by no means unmanageable.
Clawson: You're missing the point. The Iranians have a remarkable ability to use ambiguity and to structure situations so that there will not be clear-cut evidence of their involvement. Even when they clearly are responsible, they structure the situation so that we might decide against attacking them.
Reach Out, Contain, or Rollback?
MEQ: What should the ultimate goal of U.S. policy be?
Timmerman: We're dealing with a regime so inimical to Western interests it cannot be rehabilitated. We should seek democratic change that would replace the ruling clerical minority with a government representative of the Iranian people.
Clawson: That's too much. Let's continue doing what we're doing—impede the Iranian government's ability to acquire more lethal means to carry out what seems to be its rather nasty intentions.
Shirley: This containment approach that you, Patrick, more than anyone else has developed is valid; but it assumes the muscle and the will to execute it. In fact, the United States has not exercised that muscle and will over recent years. Containment of Iran is eroding.
Timmerman: We need to define the basic goals of U.S. policy. Geoffrey Kemp sees an Iranian regime we can eventually deal with and with which we have strategic interests in common. I hold that this is an inimical regime that will pass up no opportunity to threaten and undermine U.S. interests around the world. We should send a message to the Iranian people that the United States will support their thirst for freedom and democracy.
We are witnessing today an extraordinary phenomenon: the Iranian people have lost their fear, just as they did in 1978-79, when they rose up against the Shah. They dared vote against the regime in last year's presidential elections; but the candidate they voted for, President Khatami, has so far been unable to deliver on the people's aspirations. Given all that is going on under the surface within Iranian society, the worst thing we could do is to legitimize the regime by dealing with it and allowing commerce to go on. We must reach out to the Iranian people instead, and hold high the torch of democracy and freedom.
Continue Dual Containment?
MEQ: Is dual containment still an appropriate policy?
Kemp: The time has come to rethink it, perhaps replacing it with what the people at the Council on Foreign Relations call "differentiated containment." We should use Iran to strengthen our hand toward Saddam Husayn.
Timmerman: I cannot think of a more disastrous approach. Balance of power was our policy in the 1980s, when both Iran and Iraq were far more powerful and had much larger conventional forces than today. The Iran-Iraq war and Desert Storm had the benefit of dramatically eroding the military power of both countries. Today they have roughly one third the forces they had in 1980-81, at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war. We no longer need to balance them against each other. We can have a separate policy for them and no longer use one to balance the other.
Clawson: As with the Soviet Union, we can have short-term and long-term goals. Détente did not preclude many us from hoping that the Soviet Union would fall from the weight of its own internal inconsistencies and problems; at the same time, that was not something we actively pursued at every moment. With the Iranian government, we could have a dialogue even as we make clear that we think it's the wrong system and should be replaced.
My objection to "differentiated containment," or the balance of power approach, is that it will not work. There have been some situations around the world where it has been very appropriate, especially playing the China card against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But not Iran, for our allies would note the closer relationship with Iran and would see this as a precedent for Iraq. French and by Gulf officials have bluntly expressed to me that if the United States eases up on Iran sanctions, that's one down, one to go.
Kemp: Those criticisms have to be taken very seriously. But the alternative—Ken's approach—is a relentless dual containment that treats both regimes as pariahs. Problem is, no one agrees with us. And unless you can find allies, this administration is simply not going to do what you want it to.
MEQ: It needs international support?
Kemp: If the GCC states were fully behind us it would help greatly. If the Europeans would change their policies—as appeared might be the case for six weeks a year ago after last year's Mykonos Restaurant case decision . . .
Timmerman: That was not a serious rethinking.
Kemp: Part of the reason they did not seriously rethink was our low-level, ineffective effort to get them to change. We sent Peter Tarnoff to Europe during his last moments in the State Department, rather than Thomas Pickering.
Shirley: The Europeans do have serious philosophical differences with us, but they are profoundly motivated by commerce. The French and Germans frankly don't care if expatriate Iranians are murdered on their territory. When Shahpour Bakhtiar—an honored soldier in the French army in World War II—was assassinated, it hurt. A lot of people in the DST [Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire], the French internal security service, and in the French army were furious. But within a very short period of time that was pushed off. Short of bombs going off again on the Rue de Rennes, it's almost impossible to imagine what might induce a different French behavior.
Kemp: The French and Germans differ. The Mykonos trial was a seminal event in German politics. The report of the trial is about to come out in its entirety and that will once again raise the German issue to the high decibel level in Tehran.
MEQ: Who's responsible, Washington or Tehran, for the fact that there is no government-to-government dialogue between the two?
Shirley: Tehran. If the Iranians would send a positive signal, we would be there at lightening speed, like a puppy to water. If the Iranians are so stupid as to offer to open diplomatic relations, we should by all means take it.
Kemp: I'm in favor of both cultural and official dialogue. The Khatami strategy announced on CNN permits the former but not the latter, and I suspect there will be nothing official any time soon. We've made several very serious efforts in the past five years to start a formal dialogue with the Iranians but they will not formally meet with us until such time as they believe there is a level playing field.
MEQ: What do you mean by a level playing field?
Kemp: I spent six days in Tehran in late February and found time and again the Iranians stressing that if they enter an official dialogue with Americans, it won't be a dialogue but a monologue. We will come in (rather like Mr. Netanyahu dealing with Arafat), with a list of things they have got to do differently, starting with weapons of mass destruction and the peace process. They're simply not prepared for that. They don't accept it when they're told that this is an unfair view of American policy and that the U.S. is willing to have an open agenda and allow the Iranians to raise their grievances.
The Iranians are very paranoid about sitting down with American officials in a bilateral official dialogue. However, Karl Inderfurth [the assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs] has already met with his Iranian counterparts at the U.N. in a multilateral setting where there are common interests on some issues. That's maybe the route to go.
Timmerman: It is incredibly dangerous for this regime to engage in any type of dialogue that could be seen as undermining anti-Americanism, a basic tenet of the revolution. Remove anti-Americanism and you leave very little by way of revolutionary credentials for the Iranian regime to stand on. Confidence-building measures—domesticating the Great Satan, if you will—will spell the end of the regime.
Clawson: I quite agree that we're not going to see an official dialogue but am more optimistic about easing tensions. The Iranians have backed off from some of the more in-your-face actions. I'm terribly encouraged by the actions of the Iranians in the last two weeks to shut down Iraqi oil smuggling through Iranian territories. Here was a situation where U.S. ships—the so-called multilateral intervention force in the Gulf—were frequently confronting Iranian Revolutionary Guards who protected those smugglers. By effectively shutting that operation down, the Iranians removed a potential flashpoint. We should take every opportunity for multi-lateral opportunities and do everything we can to take actions that are helpful for Iran in areas of common interest.
Also, we should make extremely clear that we're very open to official dialogue and that we want to find ways to make it actually happen.
MEQ: For the first time in nineteen years, the American flag was flown in Iran on February 17, 1998—and not burnt or trampled on; in fact, the audience at a wrestling match on that date apparently gave Old Glory a rousing ovation, stronger than for any other foreign flag. Is this a significant development?
Timmerman: It proves the point we seem all to agree on: the minute the United States returns to Tehran with any kind of official presence, even if only a sports team, it is a magnet. The Iranian regime understands that, so it will be very interesting to follow developments in the upcoming sports matches to see how far they allow us to be present.
Kemp: If Americans are such a threat, why do the Iranians take the risk of hosting U.S. visitors? Because they're now more willing to engage in unofficial—or track-two—diplomacy and tone down the anti-American rhetoric. The Iranian leadership understands that it cannot tear up all the mantras laid down by Ayatollah Khomeini overnight; to deal with the Great Satan indirectly, however, they have to continue to pressure the little Satan (Israel) and maintain the fatwa on Salman Rushdie.
Clawson: I wouldn't read into the wrestlers a unilateral Iranian decision to accept Americans; it's also an American decision that it's safer to go to Iran. Iranians wrestlers have been coming to the United States for four years. In fact, the Iranian Wrestling Association said it would suspend future trips to the United States unless the Americans finally accepted their repeated invitations to visit Iran.
MEQ: Who decided on the trip to Iran, American wrestlers or the government?
Clawson: Both. American wrestlers consult with the American government on a regular basis. The American government's advice in the past was that Americans should not go to Iran because they would be at personal risk. That was recently rescinded by the U.S. government, and it was on that basis that the wrestlers finally decided it was safe for them to go.
MEQ: How should the U.S. government respond to President Khatami's call for more cultural exchanges?
Clawson: Openly, vigorously, and not as quietly as it has up until now. Rather than the very limited steps that have been taken, I would have gone a lot further—permitting Americans to visit Iran, making it easier for Iranians to come here. I would seek maximum publicity for these actions by packaging them all together into one big huge announcement—not like the small scale announcements that were made.
Kemp: You're going too far, too fast. There are practical constraints here. When Americans get mobilized, as you suggest, we overwhelm them.
Clawson: That's exactly my goal.
Kemp: It won't work.
Clawson: Not if you assume that reaching agreement with Tehran about how to conduct unofficial dialogue is the main goal. My aim is different: to impress upon the Iranian people that the United States is friendly to them. They should understand that Americans seek dialogue, that the real barrier to this is their own government.
MEQ: Are there other messages we should send the Iranian people?
Clawson: Dialogue is totally compatible with sanctions policy and the combination of the two is more effective in many ways than either one alone. Just as during the Cold War, when we had détente plus deterrence toward the Soviet Union, dialogue plus sanctions shows we're open to the Iranian people but hostile to the Iranian government.
I'm in favor of a much more advanced dialogue with Iran on a civilizational level than we have at the moment. Khatami's call for a dialogue between peoples is a great idea, and the United States ought to take vigorous action to pursue that. Had I been in a policy-making position, the day after that speech, I would have said, "That's great! You want to have more people come to the United States? We'll send twenty consular officers there tomorrow to help process visas." I would have announced a whole variety of measures to make it clear that the United States is really seriously interested in having a whole lot more contact. But we're not doing that, we're too scared.
Shirley: Actually, there is no a shortage of Iranians coming to America; last year, 20,000 Iranians did so. The numbers are lacking the other way around.
MEQ: Let's look at sanctions in two parts. First, concerning the May 6, 1995, executive order banning all commerce between American companies and Iran; has this embargo worked?
Clawson: Warren Christopher announced very ambitious goals for the sanctions—that Iran would pay such a heavy price for its unacceptable behavior that the Iranian leadership would reconsider its actions. I thought these goals were too demanding but, in fact, Iran elected a new government that may well be change that behavior. In other words, the criteria established for success have been accomplished.
I find it curious that some people are saying, "The Iranian government is changing its behavior, therefore the sanctions were unsuccessful." To the extent that the Khatemi government is changing its behavior, we have to say that the sanctions were extremely successful.
Shirley: I agree. At the Organization of Islamic Conference meeting in Tehran in late 1997, there was no doubt that defeating the sanctions on Iran was a major Iranian goal. This points to them having a serious bite, for they wouldn't spend so much effort against something that is basically null and void.
The sanctions have clearly encouraged moderation to some extent. But I wouldn't push this too much, because the real key to Iran concerns the collapse of the revolutionary ethos. This has primarily to do not with the economy but with clerical problems and the hollowing of revolutionary ideology.
MEQ: Would you permit the sale of U.S. consumer goods products in Iran?
Clawson: Enthusiastically. Let's lift sanctions on consumer goods across the board, and especially on the sale of U.S. books, videos, educational, religious materials, etc.
Timmerman: There are no sanctions on those now.
Clawson: Not on purchases from Iran, but sales to Iran are banned or perceived to be banned. If Americans want to sell consumer products in Iran, let them. Iranians are very interested in U.S. consumer goods and we should encourage that interest in America on the part of ordinary Iranians. Frankly, that drains the foreign exchange that Iran has available to spend on nasty purposes. I would tie this permission to something positive they've done, then announce that the Iranians did this nice thing and we're going to respond with this nice thing for them.
Timmerman: That would validate a situation which exists in fact. There's no lack of U.S. consumer goods in Iran today. Goods are sold there all the time from Dubai and the free port of Jabal 'Ali. However, I prefer the current state of play to the formal lifting of sanctions, given the Clinton administration's lack of discipline and proven inability to enforce export controls on strategic technologies. The only options we're left with appear to be total embargo or anything goes. Given Iran's vigorous weapons-of-mass-destruction programs, we cannot afford any leakage of strategic technologies to Iran.
MEQ: Are sanctions working?
Shirley: No. Sanctions are arguably the perfect approach if you have the will to follow through on them; if not, they are the worst of both worlds. We're heading toward a situation where Americans are not on the ground, and so not corroding the Islamic Republic philosophically and not profiting from the growth of the Iranian market commercially.
Clawson: Yes, sanctions are working. At the time they were adopted, a great many experts announced they would have no effect on the Iranian economy. I was the only one who stood up in front of the Congressional committees and said it was going to have an impact, and was excoriated for that by Iranian specialists and by economists. And now the widespread comment that's made—including by a fair number of people who I testified, spoke and debated against—is that it's undeniable that the sanctions have had an impact on the Iranian investment in the Iranian oil and gas industries.
Kemp: Everyone agrees with that.
Clawson: They did not at the time sanctions were imposed.
Kemp: But what advantage do we get by hurting the Iranian energy sector? Sanctions certainly hamper their energy development and it may hamper the build-up of conventional weapons. But developing the Iranian energy sector is very much in our strategic interests. Also, I fail to see that sanctions have any impact whatsoever on the terrorist activities or programs to develop weapons of mass destruction.
In particular, restrictions on foreign investment will not prevent the Iranians from going after a nuclear capability. In fact, you can make the reverse case. Many of the countries that have developed nuclear weapons were poorer than Iran. Therefore, if the strategic motives are there, they will find a way to do it. We have to bring them into a regional security environment into which they don't want to do so, so they'll reach the same decision that Argentina, South Africa and Brazil did.
Clawson: Even you accept that the sanctions hamper the Iranian conventional build-up; and that's important in itself.
Kemp: We have much more to fear from Iranian nuclear, biological, chemical weapons than from the Iranian navy. I'd prefer to see them spend on conventional forces.
Clawson: We can rally international support against an Iranian program of weapons of mass destruction far better than against a conventional arms program. Iran is a signatory to all those agreements stating it will not have these kinds of weapons, so its acquisition of those weapons makes it into an international outlaw.
Kemp: Iran has ratified the chemical weapons convention that permits it to keep chemical weapons for up to ten years once it is fully in compliance with the treaty. On the biological weapons count, they're not bound by any enforceable treaty because there isn't one. As for the nuclear issue, absent some under-the-table deal with the former Soviet Union, Iran will need at least ten years to develop an indigenous nuclear weapons capability.
Clawson: Well, they're a signatory to the Biological Weapons Convention.
Kemp: There's no effective biological weapons convention.
Shirley: In short, it's very difficult to say we can starve them into submission on their weapons programs. Certainly on the conventional weapons there's no question; if they had more money they could buy more conventional weaponry. Conventional weaponry is very expensive. Iran really is a one-resource country. The real question is: If you starve the oil industry, will that create enough pressure on the regime to create social combustion and bring down the regime? Or will the regime evolve in a manner that will make it less hostile?
Timmerman: Let's say you don't have sanctions and the Islamic Republic of Iran becomes a hub of the oil and gas export routes from the Caspian Sea region. In ten years, it will have doubled its income from energy production alone. Add to that the tremendous psychological boost the regime will get from being legitimated in the eyes of the world. We are then talking about an Islamic Republic that will be doing big business with the Europeans, with the Russians, with most of its neighbors. This will make the regime that much stronger, and will reinforce its ability to use terrorism and its self-confidence to do so. This will also reinforce its ability and desire to acquire weapons of mass destruction. By lifting sanctions we would virtually guarantee that Iran will become the region's superpower, perhaps armed with nuclear weapons.
Kemp: That is counter-intuitive. First, the marketplace will determine whether or not Iran becomes a hub. Second, constraints on investing in Iran go way beyond sanctions, as Patrick has frequently pointed out. Iran has laws that prohibit foreign investment in the on-shore oil and gas industry. It may have to change those laws. When it does, that means it is opening up the economy and society in unprecedented ways. In those circumstances, Americans and Europeans will be running all over the place, interacting with a very sophisticated stratum of Iranians.
Shirley: That interaction already occurs and is pretty profound—people tend to underestimate the interaction that exists already in Iran in the elite strata. Certainly if you cannot have rigid sanctions on the regime, the possibility of philosophical corrosion should tempt us greatly.
Washington can either lift sanctions or tighten them. Both positions have considerable merit. I'm inclined to lift sanctions: the Clinton administration obviously doesn't want to battle our European and Asian allies over Iran, and without such a demonstration of will our sanctions regime is inevitably going to collapse because no one will fear possible U.S. retaliation. Though lifting sanctions now will be read, correctly, as a significant U.S. defeat in the Middle East, I would prefer to see this defeat now, at the beginning of Khatami's presidency, than later after the bloom is off the new spirit of U.S.-Iranian dialogue. If we lift them now, then U.S. business, and American citizens, will be back before the next presidential election in Iran. Their presence will inevitably become a major debating point and help fuel the intense discussions and political activity that are slowly turning Iran, again, into a more civil, tolerant society. Simply put, if the Iranians want to trade with "the Great Satan," they have both more to lose, and to gain, than we do.
The Iran-Libya Sanctions Act
MEQ: Let's turn to the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act [ILSA]—by which the U.S. government since 1996 pressures other countries not to invest in Iran's oil and gas industry. Has ILSA inflicted enough damage on Iran to be worth the price in aggravated relations with Europe, Russia, and other countries?
Kemp: It has had an impact and we shouldn't throw it away for nothing. However, the worst possible situation is one where we actually have to implement the law. That means a drawn-out battle with our European allies, who will immediately take the issue to the World Trade Organization [WTO]. It will be a very unpleasant trans-Atlantic fight, at the very time when we need as much allied support as we can to deal with Saddam Husayn. The Iranians will drive a Mack truck through the differences between Washington and Brussels.
Clawson: I generally agree with Geoff but would pursue different negotiating tactics. Along with others, I helped advise those writing ILSA to ensure that the potential sanctions include ones totally outside the WTO's realm. For instance, denying access to U.S. Export-Import Bank credits or not being allowed to be a primary dealer in U.S. securities don't cause a fight with the WTO. You could say on a particular project—say the South Pars field investment by Total, Gazprom, and Petronas—that we're going to apply just these sanctions. On another deal, where we have more leverage, we could apply stronger sanctions. The administration has made maladroit use of what is a remarkably flexible law.
Shirley: But for the sanctions to have teeth, eventually you have to show them.
Kemp: To the contrary, rather like with nuclear deterrence, once we use the ILSA sanctions, they've failed. Actually using ILSA against a major European company creates more trouble than it's worth.
Clawson: Sure, but Total is a company that has a strategy of dealing with rogue regimes around the world, whether Burma or Iran, and not having any investments in the United States. As a result, it is nearly invulnerable to actions the U.S. government might take. I would have announced that, "We're going to apply token sanctions against Total, because we can't do anything to it anyway." But if Shell comes along and does something, then we would do much more.
Kemp: That is unfair to American companies; and the other big companies, like Shell, that want the onshore deals will challenge the law in one way or another.
Timmerman: Geoff earlier noted the importance of getting allies to support our policy toward Iran; but I wonder if they matter all that much? With one major exception, this Total-Gazprom-Petronas deal, our unilateral sanctions policy has served as a deterrent to foreign investment in Iran.
Clawson: You're understating the case, Ken. ILSA got the Europeans' attention. After years of Warren Christopher being a regular pest about Iran (the comment was frequently made that Christopher seemed to care emotionally about only this issue) to no avail, we tried the ILSA route, and that got the Europeans to take actions on those matters. They have now agreed to do something about restraining Iran's program for weapons of mass destruction, the transfer of dual use technology, and Iranian terrorist activities and arms acquisition activities on their soils. The Europeans, in other words, did very little until we started to wield a big stick called ILSA. Many things can be said about ILSA's negative effects with the allies, but so far it seems to be the only thing that draws their attention.
Ending the Sanctions
MEQ: What must Iranians do, short of a change in regime, to end the sanctions?
Timmerman: The question isn't what changes in behavior this regime needs to make before the sanctions can be lifted, for that implies this regime is legitimate, that it can be rehabilitated, and that it can survive after jettisoning core values such as the messianic spread of radical Islamic fundamentalism. It's like saying about a black cat, "If only you were gray, we could deal with you." The regime is likely to come to an end before sanctions are lifted.
Kemp: I take a different approach. As long as we do not have to test ILSA against the Europeans, I believe we should get something from the Iranians in return for it. But we must be very careful not to push this to the limit, for to do so would leave us in an more isolated position internationally. What do you demand to lift it? We can perhaps strike a three-way deal if the Europeans can come up with a more constructive enforcement mechanism to deal with dual-use technology; or if they can cash some chips in Moscow to stop the Russians from selling and cooperating on missiles.
Timmerman: We have more chips in Moscow than the Europeans do; and yet we've had no success in stopping the Russian missile transfers.
Clawson: A far-reaching agreement with the Europeans to coordinate Iran policy goes far toward meeting our objectives. For that reason, I would end the sanctions on Iran if the Europeans agreed that dialogue with Iran is such a great idea that it must include the United States. In other words, I want all Westerners to agree that they will hold a joint dialogue with Iran; but until such time as it takes place, they are all going to implement a whole variety of restrictions on Iran, including some type of economic sanctions.
Kemp: But none of this is realistic. As long as Iranian policy towards Israel is unremittingly hostile, Congress will be unwilling to lift the sanctions—particularly ILSA. So the question is: What change in Iranian policy toward Israel would help? I'm not optimistic on this.
MEQ: What do they need to do?
Kemp: If they endorsed Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority as the sole representative of the Palestinian people in the negotiations with Israel, that would both imply less support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad and de facto recognition of Israel. That would get attention in Jerusalem, believe you me. Likewise, a breakthrough in southern Lebanon—and this looks presently in the cards—could split the Syrians from the Iranians; and when push comes to shove, the Iranians will take a walk on Lebanon.
Timmerman: That's debatable. The Iranians have a great deal historically and emotionally invested in Lebanon.
Shirley: I see two situations in which we should lift sanctions. I would drop sanctions immediately once diplomatic relations are restored with the United States, for that spells the end of the revolution.
MEQ: Even if they do everything else the same?
Shirley: Anti-Americanism is such an important pillar of the Iranian revolution that when it goes, the whole thing goes. You have anti-Americanism and the chador; the rest is fallacy. Iranian hypocrisy has an immense reach but it does have limits.
Second, I see lifting sanctions if the Europeans can get their act together and if the Iranians can get their legislature together, so that Iran becomes a responsible financial fiduciary. When Iran becomes an interesting market in which Europeans are willing to risk large amounts of capital, the Europeans will have blown a hole through the American sanctions regime. At that point, we probably ought to drop it because we're going to look ridiculous.
MEQ: Is there any opposition group that the United States government should back and, if so, which one?
Timmerman: Yes. We should be giving moral support to every clerical opponent to the regime inside Iran, every democrat who is calling for change inside Iran, every woman going out in the street and ripping off her chador. We cannot give them material support but we certainly can give them moral support.
MEQ: That's not the same as an opposition group, though. Any groups we should support?
Timmerman: No, there are no organized groups, certainly not in exile, worthy of U.S. support. We should encourage the exiles to organize—but that is another story.
Clawson: And if there were organized groups inside Iran that we liked, the last thing we should do is announce our support for them.
Shirley: For most opposition forces, our support would be the kiss of death.
MEQ: Should Americans mount operations on our own?
Clawson: Yes, Radio Free Iran is an excellent way of showing that we're interested in bringing more news to the Iranian people.
Shirley: It's a superb idea that should have been done years ago.
Kemp: It depends. If the radio's script is a sensible one, I'm in favor of it. If we're going to use it just to harangue them, it'll be counter-productive.
Clawson: Sure. The essence of Radio Free Iran, for instance, ought to be music from all those very popular pre-revolutionary singers who aren't allowed on Iranian radio.
MEQ: If you were to make a single change to American policy towards Iran, what would it be?
Clawson: More vigorous cultural dialogue and openings toward the Iranian people. We must show that we're interested in reaching out to them. Too often our policy comes across as being suspicious of Iran, rather than of the Islamic Republic. We should combine actions that favor the Iranian people with actions that isolate the Islamic Republic.
Kemp: I agree and would also like to see a much more nuanced and sophisticated statement of our policy, particularly in those areas where we have real problems with Iran. We should define what we mean by terrorism, case by case, issue by issue. We should spell out the weapons of mass destruction problem in much more detail and to be more creative about ways in which differences over the Arab-Israeli peace process issue can be resolved.
Timmerman: I second Patrick and add one point. U.S. policy-makers repeatedly say "the United States is not opposed to the Islamic revolution or to Islamic government in Iran." I believe we should say instead: "We support the right of the Iranian people to determine their own form of government by democratic means." We should raise our voice in support of democracy much more vigorously. We should assert our faith in the Iranian people.
Shirley: I largely agree with Patrick. The United States should challenge the clerics on their own terrain by encouraging cultural dialogue; we should take the battle to them. If they want to argue about Islam and the West, then we should argue with them about this. The more contact the merrier. However we should be under no illusions that this will necessarily lead to an official dialogue.
MEQ: Edward refers to Iran as a dying revolution because its ideological appeal has waned. But let me conjure up China where the Communist Party gutted of its ideology remains in power. Why could it not happen that the mullahs remain in power bereft of the Khomeinist ideology?
Timmerman: You cannot have a clerical regime remain in power in name only. The mullahs have been in power by force for over eighteen years. They will ensure they have enough forces of repression inside the country to repress any kind of popular movement against them. But tremendous dissatisfaction exists while the regime is crumbling from within. Eventually, I believe the regime will fade away, but there could well be blood on the streets before that happens.
Kemp: The moderator's analogy with China is a useful one. If the Iranians mend their ways, certainly in terms of terrorism and the peace process, we can live with the Islamic Republic. Iran does not pose any dire strategic threat to the United States and American interests any more than China does.
Timmerman: But if they change their ways in those two ways they won't be the Islamic Republic of Iran.
U.S. Embassy in Tehran?
MEQ: Predict please in what year a refurbished United States embassy will open in Tehran.
Clawson: It could happen very quickly. The regime could come apart within a year. This regime is a dying revolution and is quite unpopular. One could imagine a situation in which the regime changes its policies rather profoundly with more apolitical clerics running things, kicking out the political clergy. On the other hand, it's more likely to last for another generation.
Kemp: The Iranians are paranoid about bringing American diplomatic representation back to Tehran. The United States is different from other countries—it is a magnet. Still, within eighteen months we could have very low-level American diplomatic representation in Tehran, not in the American embassy, but in the Swiss embassy.
MEQ: What about an American embassy?
Kemp: The American ambassador will not return until the next century.
MEQ: That's less than three years away!
Timmerman: I cannot conceive of the clerical rulers of Iran ever allowing the United States to reopen its embassy in Tehran. So, I don't see the embassy opening until there is another leadership in Iran.
Shirley: If the office of velayat-e faqih collapses—which is very probable (no one in Iran looks upon Khamene'i as a success story in this office)—a confluence of events could occur. If the velayat-e faqih ceases to be a functioning office, either because Khamene'i dies or is removed, and three or four clerics collectively replace him, and the velayat-e faqih becomes like the European Union, that is, a totally ineffective figurehead, then if that happens, for all practical purposes, the Islamic Republic will have mutated and re-establishment of relations with the United States will be possible.
MEQ: I'm not hearing any dates.
Shirley: I'll go with the prediction of Mohtashemi-pur, the well-known Iranian radical, who said in 1985, "I can't imagine relations with the United States restored in under twenty years." So, 2005 is my guess.
Timmerman: Not until the regime falls, which will be sooner rather than later. I'll take 2003.
MEQ: I note a consensus here that anti-Americanism is a basic tenet of the Islamic Republic; that President Khatemi may have moderated Iranian behavior; that the sanctions on U.S. consumer goods should be lifted; that Washington should not become operationally involved against Tehran; and that the U.S. government should permit, even encourage, contact with Iranians. On the other hand, economic sanctions in general and ILSA in particular, appear to be the main issues of contention. Any thoughts on these areas of accord and discord?
Clawson: Disagreement among has mostly to do with how far to push the allies for help against Iran. Strong European pressure for engagement with rogues, be it in Iran, Iraq, or Cuba, evokes major disagreement within the United States government, especially between the executive and legislative branch. The Europeans refuse to treat these states as security problems requiring a security response; they only see an opportunity for trade and a task for diplomats. This abiding problem will remain even if Iran moderates its behavior.
 Sam Brownback, "Foreign Problems Mostly Concern the Middle East," Middle East Quarterly, Mar. 1998, pp. 61-62.
Related Topics: Iran | June 1998 MEQ
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