Iran-US Complicated Relations

Eghtesade Iran [Economy of Iran]; Economic & Financial (Monthly)
Oct. 2001, No. 32
Pages: 22 - 26

Summary: Although relations between Iran and the United States have been going in the direction of full rupture during the last twenty years, many common interests of the two countries can be secured through relinquishing of some unnecessary clashes, such as the US' abandonment of finger printing of Iranian citizens, use of contacts between the two nations, abandonment by the US of the policy of restricting Iran in the energy of Caspian Sea.

Text: In spite of some guesswork about the inclination of the new Republican administration to lift or at least, diminish the sanctions against Iran to two years, the US Congress, by majority votes, endorsed continuation of these sanctions for another five years. Japan, Russia and members of the European Union gave a negative response to the above action. In Iran, Khatami's government expressed dissatisfaction with continuation of the sanctions, but certain political currents welcomed the American action.

The reasons for continuation of the sanctions by the American Congress were those given five years ago, namely Iran's alleged role in international terrorism, Iran's efforts to gain access to weapons of mass destruction and its violent opposition to the Middle East Peace Process.

On this basis the US will apparently impose sanctions on those international companies which invest more than $20m in Iran's oil sector.

In this trend several questions are raised: Were the sanctions of the last five years successful in achieving their objectives? What are the main purposes of imposing sanctions against Iran? Is an improvement in relations between the two countries likely? Will effective initiatives be taken for constructive movement in relations between Tehran and Washington?

The US-Iran relations were quite strategic in pre revolution days, so much so that Jimmy Carter, the former president of the United States, called Iran "the Island of Stability " in the Middle East. Following the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and a 180-degree turn of the Tehran government in regional and global policies, the above attitude underwent fundamental transformations. As a consequence, America took steps to restrict the scope of activities and influence of Iran in political, military and economic fields, which has been going on till now.

During the terms of office of Presidents George Bush (senior) and Bill Clinton , relations between the two countries remained inimical and unfriendly, notwithstanding efforts made to use opportunities for a rapprochement. George Bush, the senior, did not achieve much success in practice and in putting into effect his famous phrase, namely "goodwill will beget goodwill". President Bill Clinton too followed the path of confrontation during his eight years in office, and justified his policies with respect to Iran in the above three fields.

The most important action of the Democrats was adoption of `dual containment policy' as well designing and implementation of sanctions against Iran and Libya (known as the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act), which was put into effect following its ratification by the congress.

The main purpose of the sanctions in the field of oil investment in Iran was to make use of Iran's high dependency on oil revenues (dependency of 85%) to reduce this country's revenue resources and thwart some of Tehran's projects and policies.

Low oil prices in the global market during mid- and closing years of 90s gave reasons to Americans that their sanctions and "dual containment" policies (Iran and Iraq) would succeed. Although the negative effects of the sanctions on development of the oil industry of Iran can never be refuted, still Tehran's initiative in using European and Japanese investors as substitutes severely prevented American sanctions from achieving their objectives. At the moment, American sanctions have backfired. The proofs of this claim are as follows:

Non American oil companies have quickly taken the place of American investing companies, and the principal losers of the sanctions policy are American companies themselves. The American design to impose oil and non oil sanctions against those countries whose ideology and interests are in conflict with those of the US has encountered opposition of other countries, particularly its European allies. This has had and will have adverse effects for Washington's diplomacy at the world level and among its European allies. A clear example is Europeans' readiness to seriously confront this kind of American laws. Chris Patten, the eminent British diplomat and EU foreign relations commissioner says: Imposition of sanctions by America against others threatens the free trade system of the world. If Washington takes action against European companies that are active in Iran and Libya, we shall lodge complaint with the World Trade Organization."

It is thus seen that unilateral stand of America in imposing sanctions, and Iran's suitable initiative in establishing and developing relations with Europe, Japan and Arabs, have gradually eroded the consensus Washington had in mind in its approach to the IRI. Accuracy of this hypothesis is supported by the article of the Economist. According to the London-based magazine: We can definitely say that very few policies can be found that have had so many adverse results as American approach about sanctions.

Brent Scowcraft, the National Security Advisor of George Bush (senior) also tops the group of American political experts who believe that the sanctions have opposite results.

Therefore it is imperative that American statesmen, when trying to impose unilateral sanctions against country, always pay attention to diplomatic consequences, and bear in mind Collin Powel's statement made on the day he obtained a vote of confidence from the Congress: I encourage the Congress to pause a little, to exercise patience, to look carefully, to listen, and then (if it deems expedient) to resort to the sanctions.

Static Relations

Washington's main anxieties about Iran's policies may be classified under three headings: Support of international terrorism, violent opposition to the peace process between Arabs and Israel, and efforts to gain access to weapons of mass destruction, particularly chemical, nuclear and missile weapons and their proliferation. In this connection, several points are worthy of attention:

Firstly, Tehran's definition of terrorism is different from that of Washington's.

Secondly, Tehran regards Israel's policies with respect to the Palestinians to be suppressive and with respect to Arabs as expansionist. Iran regards the strategic relations between Israel and Turkey and Tel Aviv's relations in exerting pressure on countries that cooperate with Iran in nuclear and military areas as interventionist (an example is Ariel Sharon's trip to Moscow last month and his efforts to affect relations between Tehran and Moscow).

Thirdly, Iran regards America's attitude towards other countries' possession of weapons system to be discriminatory. Professor Barry Buzan and many other analysts believe that America calls some countries "rogue" and has taken stand against them, while its allies in the region, particularly Israel do not allow international organizations to inspect their nuclear installations, without the US showing any reaction about it.

Iran's preconditions

In return to Washington's demands, Tehran too has some demands which are considered preconditions for negotiations and which must be met:

  • must put an end to sanctions imposed against Iran.
  • The question of Iran's assets blocked in the US must be settled.
  • American forces deployed in Persian Gulf must leave the region.
  • Washington's policies with respect to the region must change.

    It is seen that the first two affect Iran directly and the second two indirectly. Another point that emerges in the course of investigation of relations between the two countries is that the disputes between the two countries are specific, whereas no method and framework has been devised to settle them. Since 1979 the two sides have been so entangled in repercussion behaviors that all middle- and long term initiatives have been denied to them
    . External effects

    Apart from reciprocal behaviors, the climate of the Middle East and exercise of influence of American allies comprise many delaying impacts. In this connection, the special relations between the US and Israel and with Turkey to a certain extent, geopolitical outlook of Washington at the question of the Caspian Sea and transfer of energy sources to European market while minimizing the role of Iran, priority given to debate of Iraq in the programs of the Republican Administration and the dangerous situation of the region due to the perilous deadlock between Arabs and Israelis and occurrence of sudden events in the region (Iraq's attack against Kuwait and terrorist attack of Sept. 11 in American soil and the regional response of the US) all affect relations between Tehran and Washington. In this connection, some threats and opportunities originate from a series of events that affect relations between the two countries.

    Lack of readiness of internal atmosphere, a taboo

    The public opinion about Iran-US relations was organized by IRI until a few years ago that helped setting up of an absolute deadlock in the relations. American statesmen, either willingly or unwillingly, helped with this situation.

    With due regard to the new climate generated after Seyed Mohammad Khatami's victory in 1997 and again in 2001, one needs to ponder on one point: resumption of relations with the US has been converted into a measure of loyalty to ideology and as a criterion for challenges between religious and secular camps, or idealistic and pragmatic camps.

    In view of stands taken vis a vis changes in the climate, the debate about the relations with the US has been converted into a kind of internal political weapon to be used at an appropriate time which imposes certain unwanted effects on the original subject matter.

    A perilous investment

    America cannot arrange its relations with Iran through merely banking on internal developments of the country. Mere concentration on domestic developments require "betting" on winning and losing sides, and such an approach, apart from being dangerous, requires long patience and can be counterproductive for medium and long term interests. This principle is applicable to Iran to a certain extent.

    The question of power struggle in Iran between the reformists and the conservatives, lacking special infrastructure feature, would boil down to struggles between persons with uniform origin but with different demands. The problem of absence of middle term and long term strategies in both spectra, and too much attention to gaining quick concessions, and not knowing how to use public participation, would cause some factors such as rift between government and nation, together with economic problems and the crisis of identity of young generation to release an abundant energy at the time of crisis and to make the future unpredictable.

    Hence the US' guesswork about internal problems of Iran would, in addition to backfiring, entail a lot of dangers. These dangers can go beyond geographical boundaries. An unstable Iran would make the region unstable.

    Thus such a climate would cause the statesmen of Tehran and Washington to confine themselves only to symbolic behaviors and addressing "nations".

    This question was shown in Khatami's interview with CNN and in the unprecedented terrorist attack of Sept. 11 and killing of thousands of civilians, when Khatami addressed the American nation and offered his condolence.

    The fact that the slogan of `death to America' was not chanted for the first time in Friday congregational prayers in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and condolence messages were sent by NGOs, such as the Mayor and City Council members of Tehran were more out of humanitarian ground rather than diplomatic gestures. Such moves will be recorded in the historical memories of the two countries.

    Common interests

    Tehran and Washington have potentially common interests in some key areas, such as countering Saddam's threats in Iraq, countering threats posed by narcotics and terrorism from Afghanistan and countering Taleban's policies, establishment of stability in Central Asia, Iran's use of American technology and products and, in return, opening of Iranian market for American companies etc.

    The fact that Iran lies in the strategic and oil rich region of the Middle East, is close to Central Asia and can have geopolitical impact, is among very important topics for American strategists. Nevertheless American policy planners are puzzled how to make a move to get closer to Iran.

    Ponderable initiatives

    Under these conditions, it is better that each side redefines its immediate and strategic interests, comes to a suitable conclusion and tests some short term and middle term initiatives. These initiatives can comprise the following fields:

    1- Americans must lift sanctions imposed against Iran (which is improbable); Americans can allow or encourage their companies to invest under the same $20m ceiling in Iran.

    2- In global field and related international organizations, the US can adopt policies that contain positive messages for Iran. This tactic would bear fruit more quickly in some organizations such the World Bank and the IMF.

    3- The US can abandon its policy of restricting Iran's field of maneuver, and let Tehran not to feel isolated. This behavior would cause Tehran to seriously take into consideration future macro topics such as stability of the region and international interests. This topic is more worthy of attention in some cases such as the second Persian Gulf war (1991), and revengeful attack of the US against Afghanistan or again Iraq.

    4- The US can avoid unnecessary treatments like finger printing of Iranian citizens and diminish its negative psychological effect.

    5- The White House should not allow the question of blocked assets of Iran be turned into an insoluble problem. The recent behavior of American courts when they issued verdicts fining Iran, and withdrew money from Iranian assets under judicial pretexts, is a unilateral behavior and can have adverse consequences.

    6- The US can benefit from "nation to nation contact" initiative and pay attention to cultural, scientific and sports exchanges in non political matters. This act can pave the ground for future moves. Correspondence between Majlis deputies of Iran and American Congress and use of former American statesmen can prepare necessary ground for future moves and serve as a useful channel. Through support of relations between Iran and Europe the US can build up situation.

    7- The US can refuse to concentrate on past files in which Tehran's involvement is not proven.

    8- The US can find suitable ways for direct dialogue to investigate problems related to arms, and reduce pressure on countries that cooperate with Tehran. This step will encourage the spirit of dialogue, even if diplomats do not talk at the beginning.

    In return, the Iranian side too can, with due regard to special considerations governing the internal atmosphere of the country, take and implement some initiatives. The more important points the Iranian planners must bear in mind, is to focus on exploitable regional and global atmosphere as well as suitable management of opportunities.

    1- Tehran instead can show more enthusiasm in the matter of settlement of financial disputes.

    2- By means of continuation of dotente policy in its foreign policy, Iran should try to restore its international visage, and use this policy as an asset for future negotiations with Washington.

    3- Like China, Iran, while preserving regional considerations related to its national interests, can bring about changes in some fields and avoid paths whose expenses are more than their benefits.

    4- Tehran can get engaged in more activities to encourage and invite American companies to make investment and also to increase export of goods that are not covered by American sanctions.

    5- In some cases such as the terrorist attack of Sept. 11 on American territory, Iran can cooperate with America, and that through third party channel.

    The last word In spite of all these, it seems that the US can, without giving an impression of interference in political environment of Iran and taking the side of this or that faction, revise this analysis of Mr. Collin Powel, when he said: "Reforms in Iran have not reached a stage yet for the US to lift the sanctions."

    To connect lifting of the sanctions with internal problems of Iran is a lethal poison which will show its effects in a near future if one insists on them. Mr. Powel and other American strategists should always bear in mind the words of Mr. Mohammad Reza Khatami, the president's brother and vice speaker of the Majlis, who remarked: "Continuation of sanctions will destroy all bridges and will make all efforts futile."

    Of course, these analyses accord with long term conditions of 20 years. It is natural that any new conditions, including lifting of the sanctions against India and Pakistan as a result of American operations in Afghanistan, will create a new environment in relations, and will require new analyses.

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