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The Iranian opportunity
America should seize the chance of Iran's election to improve its sour relations

The Economist
February 26, 2000 , U.S. Edition

"AN EVENT of historic proportions," was the Clinton administration's judgment on the reformists' victory in Iran's parliamentary election last Sunday (see ). Can the United States now build on this historic, but still fragile, event by improving its own bad relations with the Islamic republic? It would be the waste of a chance if it failed to do so.

Over the past couple of years, the Americans have made tentative efforts to start a political dialogue with the Iranian government. These have been spurned. President Muhammad Khatami has welcomed people-to-people talk, but has not felt strong enough, in the face of the hostility of his implacably Great-Satan-hating adversaries, to extend this welcome to official negotiations. Now Mr Khatami and his supporters are on a roll, able to override crude sniping. A resumption of relations would please most Iranians. Nonetheless, the reformers' attitude towards the United States remains defiant. The door is open, they say, but it is up to America to walk through it, carrying gifts.

Although the years in which the United States tried to "contain" Iran are long gone, American laws or rules prohibit virtually all commercial transactions between the two countries. However, since the ban on investment in, and trade with, Iran dates from a 1995 executive order, Mr Clinton can, if he so decides, modify it without congressional approval. American oilmen, frustrated as their competitors grab contracts with Iran, are hungry for an easing of the regulations. For their part, the Iranians would be happy if they were allowed to export, say, their carpets or caviare to America. Even more important to Iran would be a U-turn in America's determination to block it from any Caspian pipeline deal: Iran aspires, not unreasonably, to be one of the principal corridors bringing Caspian oil and gas to market.

Iran is also insistent that America should show some give on what it calls its "frozen assets". The shah ordered, and paid for, American military goods and services which, after the 1979 revolution, were not delivered. The dispute is before the American-Iranian claims tribunal in The Hague, an arbitration body set up in the early 1980s. Although some of the claims have been settled, Iran is still trying to claim amounts that go into billions of dollars. It would be good to tie up all this business, maybe with a unilateral American offer of a lump sum, even if that involved congressional approval.

If America were to tempt Iran to negotiation with juicy titbits, what should Iran offer in return? Some years ago, Iran stopped slinging money around the world to terrorist groups. It still supports Lebanon's Hizbullah guerrillas and will continue to do so as long as Israel occupies south Lebanon. But it could commit itself to stop, once Israel has left Lebanon. Iran could also commit itself to supporting Yasser Arafat in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, thus taking the vitriol, and much of the danger, out of its traditional anti-Israeli stance.

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All this is important. But a main reason behind America's sanctions is to deny Iran the money that it might otherwise spend on weapons of mass destruction. Iran, once the victim of Iraqi aggression, lives in a rough neighbourhood, surrounded by people who not only have ballistic missiles but also nuclear capacity (Russia, India, Pakistan, American forces in the Gulf). It has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but remains suspect. It is bound to look to its own security. But it would lessen suspicion if it subscribed to the newly tightened nuclear safeguards -- which would cost it nothing if, as it claims, it has no military nuclear ambitions.

Iran is on the cusp of reformation. There are still powerful forces bent on keeping it in the darkness of petty rules and a harsh clerical judiciary. Its reforming leaders, rejecting any hint of patronage, still feel they have to move with great caution in their dealings with the United States. But the election gives America an unusual opportunity to help the reformists and further its own strategic interests. It should seize it.


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