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Normalization of U.S.-Iran ties may sprout from corn sales

By Michael Lelyveld
The Boston Herald
January 30, 2000 Sunday

Suddenly, the sixth-biggest buyer of American corn is a sworn enemy that has long been subject to a U.S. embargo: Iran.

Only months after President Clinton eased sanctions to allow sales of food and medicine, Iran has jumped into the top ranks of U.S. markets for corn, according to a Department of Agriculture report.

How it all happened is still something of a mystery. Tehran hasn't confirmed any U.S. purchases, and the Clinton administration has refused to grant government financing that is normally needed for grain deals.

But there is little doubt that trade with Iran is creeping back into the American vocabulary. Many members of Congress have done an about-face on the embargo, at least as far as agricultural exports are concerned. Last year, farm-state Republicans paved the way for the Clinton decision by arguing that food should never be used as a weapon, even against Iran.

In Houston earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) co-sponsored a meeting for Texas companies interested in business with the Islamic Republic. The Texas Democrat said the state's sales to Iran reached $ 192 million in 1992 before the embargo began, suggesting that "Iran could once again represent a major emerging market for U.S. exporters in the Middle East."

For its part, the administration has welcomed such "trade feelers" as it seeks to open political doors. Despite the 1979 hostage crisis and years of hostility, the new strategy is to kill Iran with kindness and court it with corn.

The government of President Mohammed Khatami has been careful to mix any encouragement with forbidding echoes of the past. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi recently said Iran would "welcome the presence of U.S. companies in order to contribute to economic development of the region," provided the U.S. government does not interfere in Iranian affairs. Mixed messages are likely as long as Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, remains on the scene. But the balance could shift against hard-liners in parliamentary elections set for Feb. 18. Conservatives have tried to exclude 650 mostly moderate candidates, but reform pressure may be too much to bear.

The median age of Iran's 65 million people is under 21. Many young people are smitten with American music, freedom and prosperity. Even without U.S. lures, Iranians have suffered with religious rigidity and economic hardship for too long.

The dictators have tried to stack the deck with various tricks, such as raising the voting age. But they are likely to bend to the moderates rather than see the lid of the Islamic Revolution blown off.

Even if Khatami's backers succeed in increasing their power, there will be a hundred more hurdles before U.S.-Iranian relations can improve.

Among the most serious are the three core demands of the Clinton administration. Iran must stop supporting terrorist groups, stop trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction and cease opposition to the Middle East peace process. Tehran either denies the charges or claims justification.

The administration must also open or close its books on the evidence allegedly linking Iran to the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, where 19 American servicemen were killed. Tehran has denied any role. But if it is proved wrong, even sales of U.S. corn could go back to the barn.

Beyond all these troubles lies the grand business prize of U.S. oil investment in Iran. For the people of both countries, it may take far longer before the 20-year-old wounds of enmity start to heal. But the election next month could be a big step.

The problems may be countless, but they all stem from hatred and fear.

In the case of Iran and the United States, they are one and the same thing.

Michael Lelyveld is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington.


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