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Iran: U.S. Walks Fine Line In Exerting New Pressure

  • Andrew Tully

During the past decade, relations between the United States and Iran have been gradually improving -- until January 2002, when U.S. President George W. Bush included Iran with Iraq and North Korea in what he called the "axis of evil." The Bush administration has not let up on its negative rhetoric, to the concern of some in Washington. RFE/RL discussed this more abrasive policy with international affairs analysts.

Washington, 28 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has recently been increasing its diplomatic pressure on Iran, raising fears that it may soon face a confrontation with the Islamic Republic.

The administration of President George W. Bush has reportedly abandoned years of low-level exploratory talks with Tehran, accusing it of pursuing a nuclear-weapons program and permitting the Al-Qaeda network to operate on its territory.

In the past few days, some Democratic members of the U.S. Congress have urged Bush, a Republican, to ease his Iran policy so as not to alienate the Iranian people or, worse, destabilize the country.

Most recently, Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, interviewed yesterday on U.S. television (NBC's "Today" show), agreed with the Bush administration that the Iranian government is probably pursuing nuclear weapons, possibly harboring Al-Qaeda leaders, and perhaps even interfering with U.S. postwar efforts in neighboring Iraq.

But Biden said U.S. officials should be careful about discussing regime change, whether by military intervention or by supporting a revolution within Iran.

The United States has had no formal diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979, when some of its citizens seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took hostages, whom they held for 444 days.

During the past decade, however, the countries' relations had improved significantly. In March 2000, for example, Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, made a major overture to Tehran by dropping a ban on the import of some Iranian goods such as carpets and dried fruits and nuts.

But in his State of the Union address in January 2002, Bush said Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, were rogue nations making up what he called an "axis of evil." Since then, his administration's rhetoric has not abated, and Washington has reportedly ended preliminary talks exploring normalized relations.

Leading administration figures, however, say the United States has not changed its Iran policy. Yesterday, for example, Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Washington that it is maintaining a consistent stand. "Our policies with respect to Iran have not changed," he said. "We do not approve of their support of terrorist activities. We have made it clear over the years that we disapprove of their efforts to develop a nuclear capability, and our policies are well-known and I am not aware of any changes of policy of the kind that have been speculated."

International affairs analysts disagree, saying it is clear to them that Bush is pursuing a new policy of increased pressure on Tehran.

One is Ted Galen Carpenter, the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a private policy-research center in Washington. He told RFE/RL that Democratic members of Congress are right to urge a more cautious approach to Iran, especially regarding its suspected nuclear-weapons program.

Carpenter said Iranians look at how the United States has made war on what he called its "non-nuclear adversaries" such as Serbia and Iraq. He said they compare this treatment with Washington's less aggressive approach to North Korea, and they can conclude only that the best protection against war with America is to have nuclear weapons.

"In many ways, this is a problem of Washington's own creation because potential adversaries of the United States have seen the way the U.S. has treated Serbia and Iraq, and understandably, they don't want to be treated the same way. That creates a perverse incentive to acquire nuclear weapons," Carpenter said.

Carpenter said it is appropriate for the United States to bring up Iran's suspected nuclear-weapons program, noting that it has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But he says Washington should avoid any suggestion of supporting regime change in Iraq. This, he said, can only encourage weapons proliferation, not lessen it.

"To me it's very dangerous for U.S. officials to start talking about wanting to encourage the overthrow of the Iranian government, because what we may get is a thoroughly unintended consequence of more nuclear proliferation," Carpenter said.

James Lindsay, however, said what he called "a dash of hard-line policy" can actually be constructive, as the United States already has shown with its new, more critical approach to Iran. Lindsay served on Clinton's National Security Council.

According to Lindsay, U.S. accusations that Iran was harboring Al-Qaeda members succeeded in getting Tehran to acknowledge that it had some members of the network in custody.

On 26 May, state-run Iranian radio quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying none of them appeared to be a high-ranking member of the terrorist group, although authorities were checking identities to make certain.

According to Lindsay, there would have been no such acknowledgment unless the United States had first made the accusation. "Clearly it's in the [Bush] administration's interest to put pressure on Tehran because Tehran has shown that it will respond to pressure. The problem the administration has is that there are probably some issues on which you're not going to get Iranian cooperation. Tehran has shown it's willing to sacrifice some low members of the Al-Qaeda network. It's very unlikely that the regime in Tehran is going to give in to American pressure to shut down its nuclear-weapons program," Lindsay said.

Lindsay said the United States should likewise increase pressure on Iran on the issue of nuclear weapons by reminding Iran that it is believed to be violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But Lindsay says the Bush administration should not threaten or even suggest that Tehran risks war if it does not stop pursuing nuclear weapons. Instead, he says, Washington should find ways of getting countries such as Russia to stop giving high-technology help to the program.

Without external help, Lindsay said, Iran's nuclear ambitions would be postponed, perhaps long enough for its people to effect regime change peacefully, through the country's already vital democratic process. "The country itself has a movement that is unhappy with the rule by the conservative mullahs, and [the dissatisfaction is] fueled in part by the fact that half the population of Iran was born after the revolution. So they've only known a society ruled by Ayatollah Khomeini and his spiritual descendants. They don't remember the days of the shah, and so the anger, irritation at America simply isn't there. And the mullahs are responsible for providing for the welfare of Iranians, and they haven't been doing a spectacular job," he said.

Lindsay said that if the Iranian people are united, they can be just as persuasive as the international community -- if not more persuasive -- in changing their government's nuclear-weapons policy.