The change of administration in Washington has been marked by several top officials saying the U.S. will look for new opportunities for dialogue with Iran. But they have also said that they want to see Iran change policy in several areas, particularly its support of terrorist organizations. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel takes a look at some of the fundamental conditions the new administration of President George W. Bush places on any improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations.
Washington, 1 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A clear sign the Bush administration intends to explore chances for more interaction with Iran came early this month during Colin Powell's confirmation hearings to become Secretary of State.
During the hearings in the U.S. Senate, Powell called Iran an important country undergoing profound change within. He said: "We have important differences on matters of policy, but these differences need not preclude greater interaction, whether in more normal commerce or increased dialogue." And, he said, "our national security team will be reviewing such possibilities."
But if Powell's remarks were meant to signal a certain openness on Iran, no one in Washington interprets them to mean the Bush administration will not attach conditions to any better relations. Those conditions -- some of which were stated clearly during Bush's own campaign -- are that Tehran ease U.S. concern over its activities in three main areas. They are: Iran's support of terrorist groups, its opposition to the Middle East peace process, and its efforts to build weapons of mass destruction.
An early U.S. gesture toward improved relations could come with the lapse of the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act in August. The Congress is considered unlikely to renew the act's unilateral U.S. sanctions on foreign companies investing in Iran's energy sector.
That could set the stage for later bargaining with Iran over what the Bush administration would want in return for also lifting executive sanctions against U.S. oil and gas companies buying and selling Iranian oil or importing it to the American market.
But analysts say any such lifting of sanctions would also require gestures from Tehran.
Kenneth Katzman, a regional specialist at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, says the Bush administration wants Iran to change its policy of developing weapons of mass destruction and supporting Islamic groups opposing the Middle East peace process.
"I think weapons of mass destruction is an issue that Mr. Bush has expressed a lot of concern about. And Iranian interference in the Middle East peace process, particularly providing material support to Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the PFLP-GC are special areas of concern. And my understanding is that he would not want to ease sanctions unilaterally until we see some concrete alterations in Iranian policy on those areas."
The U.S. says that Iran remains actively committed to developing weapons of mass destruction, including chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, even though it is a signatory to arms control treaties proscribing the possession of such weapons. And Tehran is developing medium-range missiles which could reach many regional states including Israel, which Iran does not recognize.
Tehran is also the major financial backer of the Lebanese Hezbollah, which is committed to the destruction of Israel and is considered to be a terrorist organization by Washington. U.S. and Israeli intelligence services suspect the Hezbollah of aiding Palestinian Islamic groups which share the same end and which have carried out dozens of bombings of civilian targets.
Washington's level of concern over Iran's support of terrorist groups is reflected by the U.S. State Department's maintaining Iran on its list of states which sponsor international terrorism.
David Mack, a regional expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, says one of the reasons Iran is on that list is deeply felt by every U.S. administration. That is the suspicion that Iran was involved in the 1996 bombing of a housing complex -- the Al-Khobar Towers -- near Dhahran in eastern Saudi Arabia. The bombing killed 19 U.S. servicemen.
"Many of the things which people would like the U.S. to do [to improve U.S.-Iranian relations], and which could be justified in terms of U.S. economic interests, are constrained by the fact that Iran is on the terrorism list and will probably stay on the terrorism list as long as people still are concerned that there may well have been a direct Iranian involvement in the Al-Khobar bombing."
"It is almost certain in the minds of people in Washington that Iranians were at least involved in the training and encouragement of the perpetrators of that bombing. And the fact that Iran is on the terrorism list [means] as a matter of law [that it] cannot therefore receive aircraft or aircraft spare parts or credits for trade activities, U.S. government credits. There would have to be waivers for all these things and it would be politically quite difficult right now for the Bush administration to do that."
Mack says that it is easy to assume America has forgotten about the bombing because today it is rarely in the newspapers. The investigation ended inconclusively with U.S. teams complaining about lack of cooperation from Saudi Arabia. And the relatives of the victims, in keeping with military tradition, have been far less outspoken about their loss than the families of the 270 civilians killed in the 1988 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland.
But Mack says that while the relatives of the Al-Khobar victims may not be vocal, the dead are far from forgotten by U.S. officials -- including Secretary of State and former chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell.
Analysts say the new U.S. administration will now be watching Tehran for signs that it is ready to repudiate terrorism. And they say that watch will extend both to Iran's conservative regime -- which has worried Washington with its past behavior -- and to Iran's reform movement, some of whose leaders were involved in the 1979 hostage-taking of U.S. diplomats in Tehran.
Iran's leaders say that they, in turn, regard any change in relations with the U.S. as depending on the policies the new Bush administration adopts toward Tehran. And for now that leaves a stalemate in which both sides wait for the other to make the next move.