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Iran: Why It Holds The Potential To Divide The West

  • Stuart Parrott

London, 10 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A London conference has been told that the U.S. and its West European allies risk a severe diplomatic conflict because of their different policies towards the post-revolutionary government in Iran.

Dr. Michael Sturmer, director of Germany's Research Institute for International Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik), said: "Iran has the potential to divide the Atlantic nations." Sturmer said the Europeans have pursued a pragmatic line toward Teheran, whereas the U.S. has sought to isolate Iran, "America's second most hated country," because of its alleged support of international terrorism and drive to acquire nuclear weapons.

Sturmer said: "The Iranian question has the potential for a severe West-West conflict and, equally, as the State of Israel pushes the Americans into a tougher posture towards Russia, concerning arms deliveries to Iran, other areas of conflict as well." He said the issue prompts the Europeans to accuse Washington of arrogance of power, while the Americans criticize the Europeans' lack of spine, opportunism and "business as usual" attitude.

Sturmer spoke at last week's forum "Iran: looking East or West?" at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. The conference discussed the likely course of Iran's domestic and foreign policy into the 21st century, and the geostrategic importance of its huge oil-and-gas reserves.

Sturmer said the recent France-Iran deal to develop a gas field in the Persian Gulf has thrown a direct European challenge to the Clinton Administration and shows up the potential for an allied rift. France's Total energy giant, Russia's Gazprom and Malaysia's Petronas signed a $2 billion deal at the end of September with Iran's oil and gas officials to develop the huge South Pars gas field. The deal defies the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, ILSA, passed by the U.S. Congress last year, which requires Clinton to impose sanctions on any foreign company investing more than $20 million in either of the country's energy industries.

Iran says the sanctions are illegal under international law and threaten the sovereignty of other countries. France has warned Washington against retaliation, saying it would constitute a serious precedent in international trade. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said in a TV interview that: "No one accepts the idea that the U.S. can now impose their laws on the rest of the world." But the U.S. State Department said the Total-Gazprom-Petronas investment would "make more resources available to Iran to use in supporting terrorism and pursuing missiles and nuclear weapons."

In his remarks, Sturmer said the British Shell oil company now seems to want to follow Total by also concluding its own energy deal with Iran. He said: "Fundamentally, what is at stake is whether the strategies of the West part over Iran, or whether western governments join forces to make Iran's new half-democratic government an offer impossible to refuse."

Sturmer said Iran is the centerpiece of the new energy ellipse between the Caspian Basin and Persian Gulf. In the North, it has oil- and-gas-rich neighbors, whose best transit links to the open seas and Europe have to cross its territory. He said Iran looks back to an ancient culture, it has an intelligent population and plenty of oil and gas.

Sturmer said: "it would be against the laws of nature to keep a country of such potential and location as Iran in isolation forever and ever. The American law that came to be know as ILSA wants to achieve precisely this.

But revisions are under way. These revisions became visible in the U.S. when Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, earlier this year in "Foreign Affairs" magazine published strong arguments for looking at Iran containment once again. Their arguments were not only shared by a sizeable part of the U.S. political class. There are also financial, industrial and oil interests involved. However, on the other side, are to be found forces of no less potential and political impact, who remind the U.S. and its allies of Iran's overt and covert arms build-up at sea, but even more in the dimension of weapons of mass destruction and their platforms.

International affairs expert Sturmer says, "Among the accusations is also the support of terrorism and Iranian attempts to pour oil on the Near Eastern flames, whether it is the ailing peace process or the stability of neighboring regimes." He added: "Behind the conflicts between Washington and the Europeans, there are not only manifest material interests, but also differences concerning the principles and methodology of foreign policy. "The Europeans tend to see Iran as the centerpiece of a geostrategic power play, not only activated through the fall of the Soviet Union, but also in itself undergoing revolutionary change.

"Because of its enormous gas-and-oil reserves, and because of its hungry markets for industrial goods, this part of the world finds growing attention on the part of far-away countries like Japan and China, North America and Europe."

"The riches of the Caspian Sea need an outlet to the open seas. This affords Iran additional negotiating power. The countries around the Caspian Sea, as they want to trade with each other on a large scale, do not have many alternative land routes except those through Iran. "More than any other country, Iran holds the keys to Central Asia. If those keys are being turned against the West, the consequences will be durable, mostly negative." Sturmer said it would be unwise to permit Russia to set the rules in the region. The alternative to Iranian pipelines, railways, oil-terminals and ports are not only expensive and dangerous, they also give Russia a strong hand, indeed a veto position."

"The West should not serve Iran and the Caspian-rim nations -- metaphorically speaking -- on a silver plate to the Russians. The construction of the nuclear power plant at Bushir, and the delivery of complex systems through the Russians, possibly including advanced missile technology, are unintended consequences of 'double containment,' and have to be counted on the downside.

Sturmer said it is questionable to what extent the U.S. policy of containing Iran can last. "In the U.S., there are clear signals of overstretch, and there are many signs from Washington and New York that alternative policies are being analyzed and debated.

Sturmer said: "The Europeans recognize that the wall that separated the Soviet Union and Iran has collapsed together with the Soviet Union; that the Iranian regime has made friends; that Teheran has concluded major oil swaps with Kazakhstan and other agreements with its neighbors." Sturmer said: "Iran, in one word, is too big and too important to be put into the 'dog house' forever." He added: "The West has justified political and strategic objectives at stake concerning Iran, and they should be pursued with vigor and imagination. Iran has to give up support for terrorism whether through Hisbollah in Southern Lebanon, Hamas out of the West Bank and Gaza, or against the U.S. in Saudi Arabia. Iran will have to join the arms control club and accept the Near Eastern peace process."

He said: "In sharp contrast to the United States, the Europeans have pursued a pragmatic line. They are not, as an American lawmaker of the 19th century once said, "out for monsters to destroy." They refuse to see Iran as part of a global Islamist conspiracy. They recognize that Iranian-Arab conflicts are long standing and will last for a long time, and that Iran is probably more of a nation-state of the 19th century, pursuing its own national interest, than a vigorous promoter of world revolution through Islam."

He said Iran offers an example of the ambiguity inherent in the "clash of civilizations" school. "To pessimists, it is a country with a revolutionary mission out to set the region in flames. To optimists, it is a half-democratic state where people want to live in peace, do business and secure a better future for their children. "The trauma of the Iranians is not so much the Shah and the revolution. It is the war with Iraq, thrust upon them, and they remember they were very much alone when it rained missiles on Teheran." Sturmer added: "If the outside world has an interest to strengthen the elements of democracy in Iran, it has to support those who stand for a more open society."

"To bring about detente with Iran will take some time. But has not the West in the time of the Cold War developed a sophisticated policy of confrontation and cooperation, of deterrence and detente? " He said: "Muscular pressure is necessary but so is arms control. Restrictions on technology are justified, but trade should be encouraged." Sturmer added: "What happened earlier this year in Iran looks to many European analysts like a second revolution. It was a change, perhaps a turnaround, when two-thirds of the electorate voted for a more open society and a more hopeful way of life.

"In Central Asia and in Afghanistan, the Iranian regime, instead of pouring oil on the flames, has acted constructively. Even the attempt to modernize the armed forces should be seen taking into account the bad neighborhood, within a broader framework of security." Sturmer concluded: "Western countries should think about an offer to the Iranians impossible to refuse. However, this must be done in concert. Otherwise, Russia will be the beneficiary of containment and Western countries, Europeans and Americans alike, will be reduced to a spectator role."