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EU: Opening To Iran Rekindles Age-Old Foreign Policy Debate

  • Jeffrey Donovan

This week, the European Union announced it will seek to improve its political and economic ties with Iran if the country labeled "evil" by U.S. President George W. Bush can improve its record on human rights and terrorism. The decision pits the trans-Atlantic allies in an age-old foreign policy debate.

Washington, 20 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- To engage or not to engage?

That, analysts say, is the question following a European Union decision this week to begin bilateral talks on improving economic and political relations with Iran, a country U.S. President George W. Bush calls "evil."

On 18 June, European Commissioner for External Affairs Chris Patten held talks in Brussels with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif after the European Union provisionally agreed to talks with Tehran on improving political and trade ties, which already account for billions of dollars a year in business.

But the EU decision, a compromise that was long in the making, flies directly in the face of American foreign policy, which accuses Iran of sponsoring terrorism and undermining the Middle East peace process.

The contradiction in approach between the trans-Atlantic allies marks the return of a dilemma that has haunted policymakers since the Cold War, says Shireen Hunter, head of the Islam program at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "This whole debate is never going to be resolved," says Hunter. What produces the best results? It's a little bit like the Soviet Union. Did detente help, or was it the pressures of the late 1980s, or whatever? It's never going to be resolved."

Washington has not had formal relations with Tehran since its 1979 revolution, when Islamic militants humiliated U.S. President Jimmy Carter by holding U.S. Embassy personnel hostage in Tehran for 444 days.

Ever since, the international isolation of Iran has been a key U.S. aim. Yet, much like in Fidel Castro's Cuba, bitter American enemies still rule Iran 23 years later. Hunter: "The policy of isolation has been applied to Iran now for a long time. One thing is clear: Isolation has not worked."

But in his State of the Union speech in January, Bush took America's isolation of Tehran further, labeling the country part of what he called an "axis of evil" with North Korea and Iraq, which must be defeated to make the world safe from terrorism.

That label shocked many leaders in Europe, as well as in Iran, which after the 11 September terrorist attacks on America had appeared to begin improving its ties with the U.S. Late last year, Washington even praised Tehran for its nonmilitary cooperation in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

All that changed after Bush's January speech.

Under its decision to seek dialogue, the European Union would reward Tehran with improved economic and political relations in exchange for Iranian progress on controversial issues such as human rights and terrorism. Iran's clerical leaders, under pressure from popular demands to soften their religious rule, are keen on improving their sagging economy.

EU officials say their aim is to bolster Iran's embattled forces of reform under President Mohammad Khatami, who are seeking greater freedom from the country's hard-line clerical establishment.

Unsurprisingly, the Bush administration, which wants to pro-actively expand the war on terrorism, has reacted coldly to Europe's overture toward a country U.S. officials have called "the mother of all terrorism."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. has made clear to Europe its "grave concerns" about Iran, including what he said is Tehran's support for international terrorism, its opposition to the Middle East peace process, its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and the ballistic missiles to deliver them, and its poor human rights record.

Washington says Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons through a civil nuclear power plant that Russia is helping it build. Russia says that only electricity is at stake, but the issue has been a point of contention between Washington and Moscow.

Boucher also told a briefing on 18 June that the U.S. still has a law on its books that -- though never enforced -- could be used to punish European firms for investing more than $20 million a year in Iran's energy sector. "We'll continue to consult closely with European officials regarding Iran policy and would have to look, of course, at any actual business developments in terms of U.S. law."

European officials say Bush's rhetoric is hurting the cause of pro-Western reformists in Iran because anti-American hard-liners point to his words as proof that Washington is a threat to the country's security.

But Raymond Tanter has no such doubts. A member of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council, Tanter is an expert on Iran and the author of a recently published book called "Rogue Regimes: Terrorism and Proliferation."

Tanter believes the shock of Bush's "axis of evil" speech has bolstered Iran's reform movement. He says reformers can now successfully argue that by supporting terrorism and proliferating weapons of mass destruction, Iran has become a global outcast, a position that harms its own national interests.

Tanter says history shows that "rogue regimes" rarely, if ever, give anything back in return for engagement -- that they "pocket all concessions." "I would anticipate Iran, as a sponsor of terrorism, will continue to sponsor terrorism, will continue to acquire missile technology from North Korea and China and proliferate technology to Libya, will continue to acquire nuclear technology from Russia."

Tanter, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Europe's so-called "sunshine policy" is an unwitting gift to Iran's clerical conservatives and its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "The hard-liners will say, 'Even though we've supported international terrorism, even though we've supplied Hezbollah in Lebanon, even though we've proliferated weapons of mass destruction, it really doesn't matter because the European Union has rewarded us with political dialogue.'"

Other Washington analysts, however, side with the Europeans.

Judith Kipper co-directs the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Critical of the Bush administration's approach to the Mideast peace process, Kipper says the U.S. has vital interests in that region and that refusing to work with Tehran only hurts American interests.

Kipper says the U.S. should take the lead on Iran policy from Europe, which through its new dialogue will have more information and better analyses of what's happening inside Iran and thus will be better positioned to effect change there. "[EU engagement] gives the U.S. a better picture of what's going on in Iran, and that information is going to be helpful in convincing the administration that it's important to have Iran in the tent."

Hunter, Kipper's colleague at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, supports engagement but says that isolationists such as Tanter have strong arguments. In the end, she says, only time will tell which policy proves to be the most effective.

Hunter also believes that Iran's clerical leaders realize that much has changed in the world since their Islamic revolution. She says they would like to open up to the U.S., even if they do not publicly say so. Ultimately, Hunter says, it's up to Washington to start a dialogue with Tehran.

But for now, she says she's not holding her breath.

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