Prague, 20 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The following is an RFE/RL interview with Ambassador Robert H. Pelletreau, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near-Eastern Affairs under President Bill Clinton and now a lawyer and an advocate for improving U.S.-Iran relations.
Our correspondent asked Ambassador Pelletreau to speculate on the likely direction U.S. trade sanctions on Iran will take in the months ahead.
President Clinton banned all commerce between Iran and the United States in executive orders in 1995 and 1997 prompted by Iran's support for alleged terrorist organizations and its hostility to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Other restrictions on U.S. or foreign companies investing in Iran's energy sector were imposed by Congress under the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, often termed the D'Amato Act after its author, former Senator Alphonse D'Amato.
Q: I believe you have often said that U.S. sanctions policy toward Iran is in a period of evolution. I wonder if you feel the general direction is now toward a loosening of sanctions and, if so, what has changed in U.S.-Iran relations to cause that?
A: "I think it is toward a loosening of sanctions, but sanctions are not going to be in the forefront of the policy. I think sanctions are going to be relaxed as a result of continuing movement toward normalization, not in advance of it.... I think in 1998, we saw a number of actions on the part of Iran and on the part of the United States that directly or indirectly moved gradually in the direction of overcoming some of the past mistrust and misunderstanding and moved toward an eventual normalization. The sorts of actions that I think of on the Iranian side would be first of all President [Mohammad] Khatami's interview on CNN [January of last year] in which he called for a dialogue among civilizations. I think of the signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention and its ratification by Iran. I think of other actions that have been taken in Iran internally that tend to open up the system a bit and give people a little more control over their own lives, improve respect for the rule of law in the country. I think of measures such as the rapprochement with the Arab world, particularly with Saudi Arabia. On the U.S. side, what comes to mind are things such as Secretary (of State Madeleine) Albright's speech last June which called for dialogue between the two governments and for establishing a road map, when they were both ready, to move toward a better relation. I think of the cooperation that the United States has engaged in through the United Nations with Iran on the subject of Afghanistan. I think of removing Iran from the so-called Narcotics List, recognizing that Iran itself has a very active program against drug trafficking. These are some measures that have been taken on each side which are recognized on the other side as moving gradually in the direction of a better relationship. Of course, the whole balance sheet is not one-sided, it is not [only] a positive one, there have also been on each side reactions by conservative forces and perhaps these reactions have been stronger in Iran than they have in the United States. But given the fact that here in our country the leadership of Congress is in one party, the leadership of the administration is controlled by the other party, there is not a clear consensus on how policy should develop with respect to Iran and in such a case you would not expect any kind of relaxation of sanctions to take place before this process of reciprocal gestures had gone a bit further."
Q: Amid these pluses and minuses as the two sides do send signals back and forth to each other, there have been, of course, some recent changes in (the U.S.) Congress following last year's elections which saw several strong advocates of a tight sanctions policy toward Iran leaving the scene. I wonder how, in your opinion, that might affect U.S. sanctions policy in the immediate future.
A: "The whole issue of unilateral sanctions has come under much greater criticism in the United States. And this is not uniquely with respect to Iran but with respect to a number of countries overseas: Burma, Cuba, the list can go on. There are sanctions of one sort or another imposed on over 60 countries, and I think there is a growing recognition that this kind of sanctions policy, this kind of sort of automatic knee-jerk imposition of sanctions, is not really serving U.S. interests. So, there is new interest in the Congress and in the administration in bringing some order out of this sanctions policy. I think we are likely to see in this next year progress made on a piece of legislation called the Sanctions Reform Act, which would make it much more difficult to impose sanctions of the type that the D'Amato Act did on other countries in the future. The thing is that this new legislation is going to be prospective, its going to govern future laws, not those that are already on the books. So, you have the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act which in roughly its present form I expect to [see] continue, but actually that is a less draconian imposition of sanctions than the administration's imposition of sanctions through the executive orders."
Q: Do you expect both of those two sanctions regimes to continue to be tight in the coming years or will we see some flexibility with them?
A: "I think part of that depends on what happens in Iran. If the government of President Khatami continues in its direction internally of greater liberalization, greater respect for the rule of law, than I think you will see the United States moving in a reciprocal manner. One of the suggestions that is quite strong these days is a suggestion by, that is supported by members of Congress from the agricultural producing states that the sanctions be modified to at least permit the export of normal consumer products, such as agricultural commodities, to Iran and to other countries while maintaining sanctions on other areas of either sensitive technology or areas which would actually produce major foreign exchange earnings for Iran. That's one of the directions that I think could make some progress in this country because it would accord with certain domestic priorities if there is a situation in Iran which supports it, which shows continuing evolution."
Q: Does that same sort of flexibility exist for the energy sector? Would you also expect to see some progress of that sort there?
Sanctions on Iran
A: "I think the energy sector is a little more difficult. What we have seen in the past is, or last year, is that the administration did grant a waiver to the agreement regarding the South Pars field, which was made [by Tehran] with Total, Gazprom and Petronas. And the administration did grant that a waiver under the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act largely, I think, because the actual terms of the act were causing more problems with our European allies than they were putting additional economic pressure on Iran. So, additional agreements of that kind I expect would continue to receive wavers too. The question is: would this be extended to pipelines? I think not automatically but possibly if there were a strong challenge by European energy companies the United States would have difficulty maintaining its position. I do not see that strong challenge immediately on the horizon."
Q: When we discuss pipelines, of course, the subject of Central Asia comes up, and Caspian Sea oil. Is there a strong relationship between the economic development of Central Asian states and Washington's policy toward Iran?
A: "No question that there is. And here you have put your finger on one of the real contradictions of U.S. policy because, on the one hand, the United States wants to support the Central Asian states and their economic development and that means supporting economic diversification and lessening their dependence on Russia. It should mean, if it is carried to its logical extreme, that they could diversify their economies east, west and south. But because of the constraints of the Iran policy, the United States has limited its definition of what diversification might include to be east and west, and not south to Iran which is the primary country to the south. So, I see that as something of a contradiction in U.S. policy which, frankly, if there were further evolution in Iranian-American relations over the coming few years, I think, that evolution would be favorable to the Central Asian states and their economic development."
Q: Mr. Ambassador, I believe you have said that current tensions between the U.S. and Iran are the product of modern history and therefore not intractable. Would you explain why you are optimistic that relations will improve?
A: "Yes, I'd be happy to. I think that they are less deep-seated than some of the ethno-national conflicts we see around the world these days, such as the conflicts we see in former Yugoslavia, in Chechnya, in Georgia, in the Congo, in Africa. Those are ethnic conflicts and they are very, very deep rooted. They go back to pre-modern history, to tribal times. Between the United States and Iran there is no common border, there is no really lengthy history of animosity. Rather the history over the past hundred years has been a history of periods of friendship, periods of suspicion, periods of very little communication. And I see this as not being so intractable a situation. Take, for example, the reception which the American wrestling team when it went to Iran this past year received in Tehran; it was a very positive reception, a public reception.
Likewise, in the United States, I feel that some recent visits by Iranians, an Iranian wrestling team here, the [World Cup] soccer match between Iran and the United States, a recent visit by Iranian film makers and another by Iranian journalists, were quite well received in the United States and I think that public opinion in this country is getting over the feeling of animosity and hostility it had because of the taking of our hostages. So, that's why I think that the ground is better for an improvement of relations than it would be if we had a deep ethnic division between us."
Q: It's been 20 years now since the Islamic Revolution in Iran and almost that long since the United States and Iran broke off diplomatic relations. Do you feel the time is right now for some low-level diplomatic relations to be restored between the two sides, or for other steps to be taken along the way to diplomatic relations?
A: "I think that the time would be right. But it will take a certain amount of courage on the part of the two governments to move in that direction because each government has a political context within which it must operate and that political context in each country has critics of a policy of moving closer together. I think it would be in the interest of the two countries to improve their communication. And the best way to improve communication is through establishing relations, re-establishing relations. There are other ways to do it, too. President Khatami suggested the dialogue among civilizations. The United States has suggested a dialogue prior to resuming relations. There are limitations on all of those. It might be simpler, clearer, more easily understood, if some form of direct relations were re-established, yes."