The United States and Iran have made fitful attempts to talk during Bill Clinton's presidency, but they failed to start a dialogue. Now, a new U.S. president will soon take office and open the next chapter in the two countries' relations. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at how either a Gore or Bush presidency might change America's policy toward Iran.
Prague, 15 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Al Gore and George W. Bush said little publicly about Iran during their presidential campaigns. But both actually made their bids for the White House with firm -- and differing -- ideas on U.S.-Iranian relations.
Many analysts say that a president Gore would continue Washington's current policy of making periodic gestures toward Tehran in hopes of a starting a dialogue over the two countries' difference.
But they say a president Bush might take a harder line and tie any new outreach to Iran to receiving a substantial overture from Tehran first.
Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service in Washington, puts the differences this way. He begins with Gore:
"The stance of the Clinton administration has been to roll back sanctions gradually, and I am not sure I get a clear read that Gore would be any different on that. So, I have to believe that [a Gore Administration] might follow the same policy, which could involve a further easing of U.S. sanctions, even before Iran comes to the table or changes its behavior."
The Clinton Administration, of which Gore is the outgoing vice president, sought to encourage dialogue with Tehran particularly after the election of moderate Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in 1997. In a gesture early this year, Washington lifted sanctions on importing non-oil products from Tehran, including carpets and foodstuffs.
Turning to Bush, Katzman says:
"Bush's position is that it is premature to start lifting any more U.S. sanctions unilaterally until Iran shows a change of behavior on key areas of U.S. concern. He said that he also welcomes a dialogue with Iran but that it is premature to start lifting any additional U.S. sanctions."
One issue soon to face the next president will be whether to let the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, or ILSA, lapse when it comes up for renewal in August. The law, passed in 1996, punishes foreign companies investing more than $40 million in the energy sector of either the two countries -- which Washington considers state sponsors of terrorism.
Analysts predict that a Gore presidency would do little to stop ILSA from lapsing and, instead, leave it to Congress to decide the act's fate. But they are divided on whether a Bush presidency would consider holding the line on U.S. sanctions against Iran as renewing ILSA or not.
Richard Murphy of the New York-based Council for Foreign Relations told our correspondent that many in Washington -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- feel ILSA is no longer worth keeping as a bargaining chip with Iran.
He said the reason is that ILSA has been breached several times in recent years by foreign oil companies, while Washington overlooked the violations to avoid conflicts with their home countries. Murphy:
"Since the sanctions called for under ILSA were waived in the case of the French-Russian-Malaysian consortium, that chip has been played. And given the words of Secretary Albright that comparable cases would be given comparable treatment, that card has already been played."
Some experts also believe that Bush would take little interest in renewing ILSA because of both Bush and his vice presidential running mate Dick Cheney's ties to the U.S. oil industry. A number of U.S. oil companies have complained bitterly over ILSA, which they say is unfairly sidelining them while foreign competitors win Iranian oil contracts. Cheney was head of the world's largest oil-field-services company, Halliburton, from 1995 until August of this year.
But the analysts caution that the fate of ILSA -- and how hard a line either a president Gore or Bush would take on keeping other sanctions -- will depend greatly on both Iran and events in its region.
Washington will be watching the upcoming Iranian presidential elections in May for any signs it will produce new willingness for a dialogue. President Khatami appeared to seek a discourse soon after his 1997 election by calling for greater cultural exchanges with the United States and a dialogue between the two civilizations. But those overtures were later silenced by continuing opposition from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Murphy says that either U.S. presidential candidate would respond favorably to an outreach from Iran. But he says that, so far, Iran has indicated it has other priorities.
"They have other priorities, which are primarily domestic. But in foreign relations the first priority has been toward improving relations with the Gulf states, in the Arab world, in the Islamic world, and occasionally with a given European country, and with Russia."
Any new U.S. administration also will be closely monitoring the Middle East -- where the Israeli-Arab peace process is now at a standstill -- for any signs Iran is stoking tensions there. Washington is particularly concerned by Tehran's direct backing of the Lebanese Hezbollah and indirect backing of Palestinian Islamic groups -- all of which call for the elimination of Israel.
Both Gore and Bush have also expressed concern during their campaigns over weapons proliferation, including Iran's potential nuclear capability and its missile-development program.
The United States and Iran remain at odds over what to discuss should talks between them begin. Washington has called for Iran to come to the table to discuss all differences, ranging from U.S. charges that Tehran supports terrorism abroad to Iranian demands for lifting U.S.-imposed sanctions. Tehran has said any talks must be conditional on lifting of all U.S. sanctions imposed since its 1979 Islamic Revolution.