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Middle East: Bush Team Likely To Narrow Sanctions On Iran, Iraq

  • Charles Recknagel

With U.S. President Bush assuming office, many in Washington expect American sanctions policy to undergo a thorough review. Analyst Geoffrey Kemp of the Nixon Center for Peace tells about how the new administration views sanctions on Iraq and Iran.

Washington, 26 January 2201 (RFE/RL) -- One of the most talked about foreign policy topics in the presidential campaign of George W. Bush -- and later during the confirmation hearings of his top national security advisors -- has been U.S. sanctions policy.

During the campaign, candidate Bush frequently charged the administration of President Bill Clinton with allowing the international commitment to U.N. sanctions on Iraq to weaken. Bush promised he would work with America's allies to re-energize the sanctions and lift them only when their original goal of disarming Iraq has been achieved.

The sanctions were placed on Baghdad in 1990 to punish it for attacking Kuwait and their lifting remains tied to arms inspectors certifying Iraq is free of weapons of mass destruction. But recent years have seen many countries, including Security Council members France, Russia, and China, call for ending or easing the sanctions, saying they have destroyed Iraq's economy but brought Baghdad no closer to compliance.

At the same time, some top Bush advisors have questioned the value of maintaining unilateral U.S. sanctions on Iran. Vice President Richard Cheney, a former secretary of defense and oil industry executive, repeatedly said prior to being chosen as Bush's number two, that sanctions upon foreign and U.S. energy companies doing business in Iran are not in America's interest. Foreign oil and gas companies have ignored the sanctions while American companies have been prevented from competing for potentially lucrative contracts.

Those sanctions, notably the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) and various executive orders signed by Clinton, were designed to punish both countries for state-sponsorship of terrorism. But in the years since then, Iran has successfully ended its political isolation and recent months have seen President Mohammad Khatami make a flurry of state trips to Italy, France, Germany, and Japan.

Geoffrey Kemp is a regional specialist at the Nixon Center for Peace in Washington, D.C. who closely follows America's debate over sanctions. He says that both Republicans and Democrats have questioned the effectiveness of the current sanctions regime on Iraq over the last two years and now have reached a general consensus that more targeted, or "smarter" sanctions are needed. That is a position also favored by Britain and France. Geoffrey Kemp:

"The debate about the wisdom of the current sanctions policy towards Iraq has been brewing for some time now a feeling that the list of restricted items is unnecessarily severe, difficult to monitor, and that it hurts the Iraqi people and helps Saddam Hussein."

Kemp continues:

"The consensus now is that we need to have smarter sanctions. Sanctions on fewer items but those items that are sanctioned, such as dual-use technology for weapons of mass destruction and conventional arms supplies, should be monitored extremely carefully. This will permit Iraq to open up more as an economy and [there is] a feeling that this actually would undermine the regime instead of putting the Iraqi people in the position where the only source for food and water and sustenance is the regime itself."

Kemp says that these ideas have won a wide audience in the Bush team, making it almost certain that the coming months will see Washington propose -- or support -- modifications of the UN sanction regime on Iraq. The team hopes that the smarter sanctions -- also referred to as "narrower but deeper" -- will rebuild international support for isolating Baghdad by removing complaints that sanction exert too high a cost on ordinary Iraqis.

The analyst says U.S. unilateral sanctions on Iran could also become narrower under the Bush administration. And he predicts that ILSA will not be maintained when it comes up for renewal in the US Congress in August because of widespread opposition to it among American businesses.

Criticism of ILSA from US business groups increased during the latter years of the Clinton administration as the State Department waived any punishment for European and other oil companies violating it by investing in Iran. The Clinton administration said it did not want to damage relations with America's allies by carrying out the act's provisions to punish any foreign company investing more than 20 million dollars in the energy sector of Iran or Libya. Geoffrey Kemp:

"The business community, as well as the academic community and the think-tank community, have all done studies on unilateral sanctions in the last few years and virtually everyone has concluded they don't work. And that if a policy is not effective, why keep it? Particularly if it hurts American interests abroad."

Kemp says he expects ILSA will not be renewed, something which could encourage US energy companies to compete for oil field services contracts in Iran.

But he says the Bush administration is unlikely to terminate all the unilateral sanctions now in place, including prohibitions on US companies buying and selling Iranian oil and gas and on the import of Iranian oil to America. Instead, these remaining prohibitions are likely to become bargaining chips in a protracted effort by Washington to encourage Iran to engage in building a more normal relationship.

Kemp says the speed for that engagement process will depend on how responsive Tehran is to any new overtures from Washington.

Republicans strongly criticized the Clinton administration for making too many gestures to Iran -- including lifting a ban on importing Iranian carpets, nuts and caviar -- while receiving no commitments in return. That makes the Bush team particularly keen to avoid becoming the target of similar criticism itself by moving too fast. Kemp:

"One of the criticisms of the Clinton administration is that they made a number of gestures toward the Khatami regime...and there was no response. There is a reluctance therefore to make gestures that are not reciprocated. And there will have to be some back-channel negotiations with the Iranians to make sure the next time a new administration makes a gesture that there will be some response."

This means much of the future of U.S.-Iranian relations could depend on events in Iran itself. And that presents another variable which makes the success of any revised US sanctions policy toward Tehran highly uncertain. Iran's hard-liners have so far derailed tentative efforts by moderates to encourage a dialogue between the U.S. and Iran and there is little to indicate they will change that position soon.