U.S. must change policy toward Iran
June 18, 2001
Iran, long demonized as a rogue state, looks on track to become one of the most democratic countries in the Middle East. And the United States should respond accordingly.
With the recent landslide re-election of President Mohammad Khatami, Iranians are showing the world that they are making strides toward reform. Ordinary Iranians are no longer satisfied with formulaic slogans about increased personal freedoms and respect for the rule of law. They want to see concrete achievements.
Iranians voters reelected reformist Khatami, giving him 77 percent of the vote, a wider margin than he enjoyed in his 1997 landslide. As in 1997, students and women gave Khatami strong support. These groups are thirsty for greater democracy and an easing of the country's rigid social and cultural climate.
Khatami is no white knight. His government still has a poor human-rights record, and it does little for the poor and unemployed. The country also needs a more independent judiciary, a freer press and additional opportunities for women. The most encouraging sign in the 2001 electoral campaign is that voters publicly held the reformist politicians to their promises.
But Khatami has led Iran forward and the Bush administration can't seem to recognize this. Despite evidence that Khatami (and even his conservative opponents) want to end Iran's isolation, President Bush plans to ask Congress to renew the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 for another two years in August. This measure prohibits U.S. companies from doing business in Iran.
The big U.S. energy companies that bankrolled the Bush-Cheney ticket are salivating over the vast oil reserves around the Caspian Sea. So why are two guys joined at the hip to Big Oil missing a shot at all that black gold?
Because the Pentagon and the defense industry need Iran to remain a "rogue state" for at least three reasons.
First, that label helps justify Bush's costly missile-defense program.
Second, it keeps in place a lucrative arms market in the Middle East, with U.S. weapons manufacturers supplying Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states with billions of dollars in arms.
And third, it bolsters support for the Israeli government, which likes to portray itself as besieged by hostile and undemocratic neighbors.
Calls for Middle East disarmament would inevitably highlight the role of Israel -- especially its nuclear arsenal -- in ratcheting up regional tensions, including the terrorism Iran is accused of supporting.
A sensible U.S. policy would warm to Iran and move toward disarming the volatile Gulf region. U.S. allies are cautiously moving in that direction already. Even Saudi Arabia -- which once feared the export of the Islamic revolution more than anything else -- is sending olive branches to Tehran, Iran's capital.
The U.S. government's coolness toward Iran and the sanctions that stifle job-creating investments do not help the reformers in Tehran. Instead, U.S.-Iran policy strengthens the conservative forces inside Iran that stall social change by tarring it as American or Western.
The United States claims that the primary goal of its foreign policy is to promote democracy and freedom across the world. But when the United States persists in treating a slowly democratizing country as a strategic enemy, it only sows ill will.
The Iran of today is not the Iran of yesterday. The Bush administration would do well to figure this out. The Middle East would be a safer region if it did.
Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report in Washington, D.C. (www.merip.org). He can be reached at email@example.com.