WASHINGTON -- The search for Iranian moderates is on again.
Eleven years after the Reagan administration sought out cooperative Iranians only to be sucked into an arms-for-hostages scandal, many Middle East experts say the time is ripe for the United States to talk to the Islamic regime instead of isolating it and imposing economic pressure.
The new interest follows the election in May of a new president, Mohamad Khatami, a relative liberal among Iranian clerics, and his choice of a Cabinet that includes people believed to be open to contact with the West.
Despite resistance from hard-line Iranian legislators, the parliament this week approved Khatami's Cabinet choices. Khatami's predecessor, Hashemi Rafsanjani, was viewed by some analysts as a pragmatist when he was first elected in 1989, but failed to bring about major change.
Some Iran watchers say Khatami's election victory is a sign that Iranians are fed up with the rigid economy and the Islamic revolution's curbs on personal freedoms. They ask: Could Washington encourage Khatami to become a real reformer?
"I don't feel economic sanctions are doing anything to create the kind of Iran that we want," says Anthony Cordesman, co-director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "There are always good reasons to talk to enemies."
The Clinton administration has adopted a policy of "containment" -- a combination of economic sanctions, a nearby U.S. military presence and a push to get other countries to adopt similar sanctions. The intent is to punish Iran for exporting terror and prevent it from destabilizing the region.
But critics say this policy has failed to win support among allies in Europe and Japan, which continue trading with Iran. The country is so big and so important, they argue, that the United States eventually will have to deal with it more directly.
So far, though, the critics have not shaken the Clinton administration's stance or that of hard-liners in Congress, such as Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, who wield influence over U.S. policy and oppose any softening toward Tehran.
"Our intention has been to raise the costs to Iran of its own actions so that it will discontinue those actions and join the community of nations," Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering said in a recent speech.
In defense of the containment policy, Clinton administration officials note that Tehran has not curbed its appetite for weapons of mass destruction or its support for terrorism and groups intent on sabotaging the Middle East peace process.
Iran is bent on acquiring missile technology and hardware from Russian firms, equipment that would allow its weapons to reach Israel and Europe, experts say. The White House is so concerned about such efforts that it recently dispatched a team to Moscow, led by retired Ambassador Frank Wisner, who won renewed Russian cooperation in halting the sales.
Before his trip, U.S. officials warned Russia that it would face "serious sanctions" if those deals proceeded.
Clinton administration officials acknowledge that they are intrigued by what is happening in Iran but say they are determined to act cautiously. If reform is really starting, one said, "we don't want to be indifferent."
But the official cautioned that because America is viewed in Iran as an enemy, the United States could trigger a backlash against the very moderates it would like to help. "And we don't know enough about [the situation] to be really precise," the official said.
As evidence that Khatami is not truly a foreign policy moderate, a senior Clinton administration official said the Iranian president had met recently in Tehran with a secretary-general of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite guerrillas based in southern Lebanon.
Even so, the United States recently decided not to oppose a gas pipeline across Iran that primarily would benefit Turkey and Turkmenistan. U.S. officials insist they were not intending to signal flexibility, but the project almost certainly would also aid Iran.
The stakes in Iran are huge, with its fast-growing population, now at 60 million, and sizable energy reserves.
Iran is strategically located to help or hinder Western companies in exploiting the vast new oil and gas reserves beneath the Caspian Sea and in Central Asia. And with its ambitions to dominate the Persian Gulf, acquire nuclear weapons and undermine peace between Arabs and Israel, Iran could pose a menacing threat.
Calls for policy shift
"I think there's a consensus even among those who regard the Iranian regime as the devil incarnate that better relations would be an enormous plus to the United States and its interests in the region," said Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional strategic programs at the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, an offshoot of the presidential library.
The first sign of new thinking on Iran came last year, when a panel assembled by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy urged the Clinton administration to craft a common policy with Europe and Japan, which refuse to adopt economic sanctions against Iran.
Last spring, three foreign policy heavyweights -- Brent Scowcroft, a national security adviser in the Bush administration; Zbigniew Brzezinski, a national security adviser in the Carter administration; and Richard Murphy, a longtime U.S. diplomat in the Middle East -- published an article criticizing the Clinton administration's policy on Iran as ineffective.
The three urged "creative trade-offs, such as relaxing opposition to the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for rigid and comprehensive inspection and control procedures." Murphy would also offer the Iranians talks with a high-level official, such as a deputy secretary of state, thus "granting the Islamic regime a legitimacy we have withheld until now."
In the months since the Iranian election, more voices have called for a shift in U.S. policy. At a hearing in July, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat, said U.S. pressure had failed to produce any change in Iranian behavior and told Clinton administration officials: "At the very least, that calls into question your policy and should make us more willing to explore other possibilities."
"What we have to do is find some deals that improve our security and offer [Iran] something in return," said Patrick L. Clawson, a professor at National Defense University, a Defense Department school.
Ideas raised at a recent Middle East Institute symposium included nongovernment contacts between Iranians and Americans. But any such unofficial diplomacy alarms the Clinton administration.
"Been there, done that -- not interested," said the senior official, referring to the cast of characters in the Iran arms-for-hostages scandal in the Reagan presidency that included Iranian, Israeli and Saudi middlemen and a retired U.S. major general.
Experts agree that any softening in U.S. policy could backfire on the Clinton administration if Iran is found to have been behind the 1996 bombing at the Khobar Towers military housing complex in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. servicemen.
"If it turns out that there is persuasive evidence, pressure to retaliate will be enormous," says Alfred L. Atherton, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt. This, he said, would set back any change "for a long time."
Pub Date: 8/22/97