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Iran: U.S. Ambassador On Chances For Improved Washington-Tehran Relations

As the Bush administration takes office in Washington, many policy analysts predict it will seek new opportunities for dialogue and even commerce between the United States and Iran. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with Ambassador Robert Pelletreau about what form the opportunities might take.

Washington, 25 January (RFE/RL) -- Ambassador Robert Pelletreau served as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs from 1994 to 1997. Since then, as a partner in an international law firm, he has continued to closely follow U.S. relations with Iran.

Pelletreau says changes of U.S. administration always bring new possibilities for reassessing foreign policy. And he says the new George W. Bush team regards this transition as a moment to look for new opportunities for dialogue and commerce with Tehran -- even though the team is strongly concerned over Iran's support for terrorist groups and its efforts to obtain nuclear weapon technology.

Pelletreau says the Bush administration's interest in dialogue means there will be a continuation of the outgoing Clinton administration's efforts to ease tensions with Tehran. That effort was motivated by a feeling among many Democrats and Republicans that both American and Iranian interests are best served by putting political and economic relations between the countries on a more normal footing.

But Pelletreau says that Bush could move faster than Clinton did or a president Al Gore might have because the current changeover of the ruling party in Washington offers the flexibility for trying more dramatic approaches. Pelletreau said: "When you have a change in administration, it is a normal time for any U.S. government to reconsider the policies of the previous administration. So, we can expect the new administration will have a review of the policy toward Iran. But a new administration from the other party does not carry quite the same loyalty to the policies of the previous administration, as a new administration of the same party (would)."

He continues:

"After all, Vice President Gore was a party of the policy of the Clinton it would be a little harder for him to make a dramatic shift. I think a shift would have begun to occur under Gore, too, but it might just not be as fast or as dramatic as we may well see under the Bush administration."

Many analysts say that the Bush administration -- which has emphasized support of American business -- may send a first signal for engagement with Iran by not pushing hard for maintaining the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA).

The act, which comes up for renewal in August, places sanctions on foreign businesses which invest more than $20 million annually in the energy sector of Iran or Libya. The act was intended to punish those countries for state sponsorship of terrorism.

ILSA is opposed by many U.S. energy companies, which say it indirectly discourages them from doing business in Iran yet fails to prevent their European and other foreign competitors from doing so. Pelletreau:

"We have seen that ILSA turned out to be a piece of legislation that was not really implementable. We saw it first with respect to the investments of Total in Iran when a waiver was granted [by the Clinton administration] and we have seen it since with respect to further agreements which have been reached [with Iran] by Total-Fina-Elf and by Shell and some other companies."

The Clinton administration chose to waive application of ILSA rather than let the bill trouble relations with its major European allies. Pelletreau says that record, as well as a shift in mood in Congress toward the legislation in general, makes it unlikely it will be renewed in its present form. Pelletreau continues:

"The other side is that when ILSA was first passed there was virtually unanimous agreement at that time to do it in the Congress. In the Congress now, we will find much more questioning about the policy toward Iran and a much stronger business group which will be speaking against continuing unilateral sanctions. So, I would see a much more careful and considered action than ILSA was when it comes up for renewal in August."

Pelletreau says it is too early to say whether ILSA will be replaced by narrower sanctions intended, for example, to hinder Iran's obtaining dual-use technology which could be used in creating weapons of mass destruction. But he says the shape of any successor sanctions bill to ILSA is likely to be dictated in part by Iran's own actions. Pelletreau:

"There is ongoing concern in Congress about certain Iranian policies, particularly the extent to which Iran may be continuing to support terrorism, may be continuing to oppose peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and may be continuing efforts to develop nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction such as long-range missiles. So, we will probably see a good airing of those issues in connection with the debate [over ILSA]."

Pelletreau says that if signs from Tehran are reassuring, the Bush administration could well consider step-by-step relaxation of other existing sanctions, many of which were imposed by executive order and do not require congressional debate to end. These include trade sanctions against U.S. imports of Iranian oil and against American companies buying and selling Iranian oil and gas.

Pelletreau also says the Bush team may look for other potential areas where some cooperation might meet the national interests of both sides. Those could include cooperative efforts through international organizations to control drug trafficking from Afghanistan through Iran to the West or how to deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But one important factor which almost certainly will be part of the Bush administration's assessment of how much to engage Tehran will be how Iran conducts its upcoming presidential elections. Pelletreau says that the June election will be considered a key indicator of the kind of society Iran wants to be in the future.

"The next Iranian presidential election will be followed closely in many countries [and] in the U.S. it will be a key element in the way people understand the direction that Iran is taking. So, the extent to which those elections are free and fair and pluralistic with more than one candidate able to campaign and speak openly in the press and the press will be able to write about the important issues of the day, those will be key indicators."

The United States and other western countries have been worried by recent crackdowns on press freedom in Iran despite a landslide win of last year's parliamentary elections by reformists championing greater social liberties.

As the crackdowns continue in the run-up to Iran's presidential election, it is increasingly raising the question of when and if elected officials in Iran ever will be able carry out their programs without interference from non-elected officials. And that is a worrisome concern to have about any state with which you are trying to improve communication.