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Iran: U.S. Examines Policy Toward Tehran

  • Lisa McAdams

A new U.S. presidential administration will soon be reviewing U.S. interests and shaping its foreign policy accordingly. Speakers at the Middle East Policy Council in Washington Tuesday sought to lay out how that review might affect Iran in particular.

Washington, 13 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A senior U.S. official says the next administration in Washington should explore areas of mutual interest in an effort to improve its ties with Iran.

The deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Richard Roth, made the comment in Washington Tuesday at a conference exploring future U.S. policy toward Tehran.

The conference was sponsored by the Middle East Policy Council, a Washington think-tank. The program included specialists on Middle East issues.

Roth says U.S. officials are already hard at work trying to finish "transition" policy papers that could serve to guide the next U.S. administration. But he says there is no doubt in his mind that whoever wins the presidency -- Al Gore or George W. Bush -- will have to address the issue of Iran, and within the first six months of term.

Roth noted, what he called, "discerning changes" in social freedoms and civil society in Iran to which he said the U.S. should respond. At the same time, he said the U.S. has seen no positive change, but rather a degradation, in other areas of U.S. concern. He cited Iran's continued opposition to the Middle East peace process, support for terrorist groups dedicated to undermining that process, as well as Tehran's development of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles.

Roth suggested that U.S. policy in future should focus on exploring areas of mutual interest with regard to, what he called, Tehran's improving domestic political scene. Roth also sought to circumvent past and future criticism of U.S. sanctions against Iran.

"We are well aware of the opportunity costs of economic sanctions to ourselves. And the new administration should carefully review a package of economic measures that could be identified as incentives to encourage greater political dialogue."

Roth reiterated long-standing U.S. policy that Washington remains ready and willing to engage Iran in a direct, government-to-government political dialogue, without preconditions. It is an offer put forward by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright early this year, with little reaction from Tehran ever since.

Suzanne Maloney, a Middle East Research Associate at the Brookings Institution in Washington, attributes the lack of progress on the direct dialogue front to what she calls subtle, "signal diplomacy."

Maloney says Washington and Tehran have "come to the end of the line" in what they can accomplish with indirect statements and that the dangers of misinterpretation on both sides are now high.

She says there have been a number of incidents of late in which Iranian overtures have backfired or been misinterpreted in Washington and that she was certain the same could be said about recent U.S. statements directed towards Tehran.

Looking ahead, Maloney says she thinks there will be an ongoing policy argument maintaining that the U.S. should not base its policies on what happens inside Iran. Maloney, directly contradicting Roth, said she would agree with that view.

"I would argue that U.S. policy should not be based on the domestic politics of Iran. In fact, it should be largely independent of that, and that we have a national interest in engaging in a policy of limited engagement toward Iran that is irrespective of the politics."

Overall, Maloney says the past six months have demonstrated that U.S.-Iranian relations have not reached the catharsis or turning-point she said so many had hoped for. And she predicts Iran is likely to remain in a process of "stasis (static)" and not much else, for some time to come. Maloney says that is a product not only of a U.S. policy in need of review, but of a successful strategy by Iran's conservatives, whom she says are far from down and out after their routing at the polls in February of 1999.

Ray Takeyh, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, offered an unusual but compelling model for the bilateral relationship, saying he thought there might be a way out of the impasse if Washington and Tehran fashioned their ties on Sino-American relations.

Takeyh characterized that relationship as one based on disagreements in some respects, but mixed with common objectives and compromise overall. Takeyh says Iran and United States should move toward a similar model, whereby they compete and cooperate at the same time. Takeyh characterized it as a policy of neither containment, nor alliance, but of selective partnership on a limited range of issues.

"Iran and the United States have certain important objectives in common. They both have an interest in continued marginalization of Iraq, they both have an interest in stabilization of Afghanistan, they both have an interest in stopping the drug traffic, they both have an interest in free passage of commerce through Gulf. These are the goals they can accede to."

But Takeyh says for this policy to succeed there must be diplomatic dialogue and economic interaction between the two parties. Should the U.S. move to modify economic sanctions policies, he said Washington could then perhaps resume the long-suspended dialogue with Iran.

Geoffrey Kemp, the director of the Nixon Center, also sought to pinpoint areas of common interest from which Washington and Iran could build their way back to a bilateral relationship.

Kemp says he sees the best possibilities in the Caspian Sea region vis-a-vis the pipeline issue. Kemp says the next U.S. administration should undertake a quick review of its current East-West pipeline policy, which he said spurs huge disagreements at present in the region and in many oil companies.

Kemp says the Caspian and Central Asia are important areas for American interests, but he stressed that they are not vital for the U.S., whereas he says they are for Russia and Central Asia.

"I think there is a case for reviewing whole (U.S.) policy in the Caspian, with the objective (of) being more flexible about energy projects and Iran's eventual participation in them because this would help us in two ways. First, it would help defuse the growing rapprochement and cooperation between Russia and Iran."

Secondly, Kemp says there are a lot of reasons in the context of world energy for wanting to see Iranian energy resources developed in full.

Kemp adds that he does not believe the new U.S. administration will end oil sanctions against Iran, unilaterally, unless Iran reciprocates in some way Washington can pinpoint to directly. He also was "pessimistic" about the chances for warmer bilateral ties between Washington and Tehran any time soon.

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