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Iran: Heightened Tensions With U.S. Limit Openings For Dialogue

  • Charles Recknagel

Tensions between the United States and Iran have heightened since Washington this month linked Tehran to a 1996 bombing that killed 19 U.S. airmen in Saudi Arabia and the Congress signaled it would renew U.S. sanctions on Iran when they expire in August. The events, which come close on the heels of the re-election of moderate Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, could further complicate any efforts toward a dialogue between the two countries. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with U.S. political analysts about the recent developments and what they mean for U.S.-Iranian relations

Prague, 28 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Many in Washington believe that last week's twin events -- the linking of Tehran to a 1996 anti-American bombing, plus a strong U.S. congressional endorsement for renewing sanctions against Iran -- will seriously strain any new efforts to encourage dialogue between the two countries.

Several analysts who closely follow U.S. policy toward Iran say that the developments will present formidable obstacles for those officials in the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush who are considered to maintain that dialogue between the two nations is a useful tool.

At the same time, last week's events are a setback for U.S. energy companies, which in recent years have pushed hard for ending or easing American sanctions on Iran. The U.S. firms have argued that the sanctions shut them out of the Iranian oil and gas market while foreign competitors have freely ignored the U.S. position.

Last week's events began with the U.S. House of Representatives' International Relations Committee voting 41 to three on 20 June in favor of renewing the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, or ILSA, for another five years when it expires in August. The sanctions threaten punitive actions against foreign firms that make substantial investments in Iran's energy sector. The Senate has yet to take up the issue, but a majority of senators have previously said they also support renewing the sanctions.

The strong action by the House committee was followed a day later (21 June) by a U.S. federal grand jury indictment of 13 Saudis and a Lebanese for the 1996 bombing of the Al-Khobar military housing complex in eastern Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. airmen and wounded another 372 Americans. The indictment cited Iran as supporting the people involved in the bombing operation, but neither named nor pressed legal charges against specific Iranian officials.

Gary Sick is an expert on U.S.-Iranian relations at Columbia University in New York City and a former member of the White House National Security Council. He tells RFE/RL that the two events, while unrelated, will combine to put a hold on any openings to Iran that the Bush administration might have been contemplating.

"There was every reason to believe that the Bush administration came into office with the idea of, in fact, making some positive gestures, [but] that has now, at least for the moment, evaporated. I am not sure that prevents the Bush administration from eventually working out some kind of dialogue or discussion with Iran, but for the moment it appears that the chance of any serious progress is probably on hold and will remain so for at least some time to come."

Sick says that many in Washington had anticipated the administration might seek to establish a dialogue with Iran because both President Bush and Vice President Richard Cheney have ties to the U.S. oil industry.

"Before it took office, there were some very strong voices. Particularly, Vice President Cheney, before he was selected, had made some very strong statements while he was the CEO [Chief Executive Officer] [of the oilfield services company] Halliburton, calling for an end to the sanctions against Iran and opening up to some kind of dialogue with Iran. He has made no such statements since he became vice president, but one can assume he continues to feel that way."

The analyst says that both the push in Congress to renew ILSA and the indictment linking Iran to Al-Khobar came from outside the White House. On ILSA, the Bush administration has been urging Congress to consider a reduced two-year extension of the sanctions as an alternative to another full five years. As for Al-Khobar, that investigation has been pursued by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) since 1996.

But Sick says that if the White House did not initiate either of last week's developments, it is likely to be strongly influenced by them. He says that the Bush administration already had been cautious about risking its political capital to limit ILSA's renewal term, and now it is likely to be even more so.

"The Bush administration clearly has very serious doubts about this [ILSA] legislation, but apparently is not prepared to really fight it hard on the grounds that there are so many people in Congress ready to vote for it that it can't be overcome. And therefore the legislation is likely to go through for an extension of at least two years, but probably five years."

Judith Yaphe, a policy expert at the National Defense University in Washington, says the Bush administration now looks increasingly likely to accept another five full years of sanctions.

"From the Washington point of view, there is a lot of pressure to renew the sanctions. There is pressure coming from the pro-Israeli lobby, from AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], from different groups, and from the Congress, who see Iran as responsible for many nefarious things. If there is strong enough support in Congress, [the administration] will [accept] five years."

Neither Sick nor Yaphe rules out that the Bush administration -- now six months in office -- may yet seek to open a dialogue with Iran, much as the previous Clinton White House sought to do.

The Clinton administration sought to respond to statements by Iran's President Mohammad Khatami in favor of greater cultural exchanges and what he termed a "dialogue of civilizations." But Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei discouraged the process and it remains to be seen whether Khatami's election to a second term on 8 June will present new opportunities.

The United States broke off diplomatic ties with Iran after militants took its diplomatic staff in Tehran hostage in 1979. The two sides remain far apart over the issues of terrorism, U.S. concerns that Iran seeks to acquire nuclear weapons, and Tehran's refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist.

Analyst Yaphe says that despite the continuing differences between the two countries, some common interests could yet provide a meeting-ground. She says these include shared concerns over Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia and Iraq.

"There are things which [the U.S. has] in common with Iran that are very serious problems that someone may decide we really need to work on. Afghanistan, for example, we have common views there. And there is always someone who raises the issue that it would make eminently good sense from a regional point of view to be friendlier to Iran to keep Iraq off balance, because there we have a very common and important security concern for both of us."

But many in Washington agree that for now, at least, any such openings would come as a surprise.

Tehran, too, appears to be hardening its position toward Washington in response to the Al-Khobar case and the likely renewal of the sanctions.

Iran has rejected any role in the Al-Khobar bombing and Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Assifi said recently that implicating Iran in it would make things more complicated between the two countries. And Mohammad-Reza Khatami, the president's brother and a leading reformist member of parliament, has said that any renewal of ILSA would "destroy all the bridges and the efforts we have been making."