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Washington, DC, January 29, 1999: Former U.S. Undersecretary of State Richard Murphy speaking at a conference on Iran at the U.S. Congress. Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pellatreau (right) also spoke. The conference titled "The U.S. Congress and Iran: Twenty Years After the Revolution" was held by the Middle East Institute and the University of Maine. Photo by J. Javid
U.S. Congress & Iran: Twenty years after the revolution
The following text is a summary of the proceedings of a conference on "The US Congress and Iran: Twenty Years After the Revolution"presesented by the Middle East Institute and the University of Maine. This event took place on January 29, 1999 at the US Capitol Building.
The first panel dealt with the US Congress and Iran during the period 1979-99. Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service gave the main presentation. Frank Record, staff member of the House International Relations Committee, and Puneet Talwar, staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, were discussants. Henry Precht, State Department desk officer for Iran during the Carter Administration, served as moderator.
The positions that Members of Congress have taken on US policy toward Iran reflect ingrained public attitudes and interest group pressures. The Iranian hostage crisis, Katzman argued, inflicted a wound on the "national psyche" that is yet to fully heal. In addition, two well- organized groups--the National Council of Resistance to Iran and the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC)--have effectively lobbied the Congress to isolate Iran. Yet, not until recently has the US business community made a serious effort to counteract these forces.
During the Iran-Iraq War, Congress supported a pronounced tilt toward Iraq, despite reservations about the regime in Baghdad. However, Congressional thinking evolved, eventually meshing with the Clinton Administration's policy of "dual containment." This thinking crystallized in 1992, with the passage of the Iran-Iraq Nonproliferation Act. Yet, the turning point in the Congressional approach to Iran occurred in 1994, when then-Senator Alfonse D'Amato proposed stiff sanctions on Iran. His initiative reflected the growing frustration by the Congress that European policies and US trade practices were undermining the effort to contain Iran. Although the Administration imposed a total trade ban on Iran in April 1995, Congress insisted on stronger measures, exemplified by the passage of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA).
According to Katzman, Members of Congress are aware that political changes are taking place in Iran. Congress supports in principle the opening of an official dialogue with Iran, but opposes the unilateral lifting of sanctions.
Talwar, like Katzman, stated that Members of Congress are aware of the changing political situation in Iran. Congress welcomed President Khatami's election to office, his expression of goodwill during his CNN interview, and his effort to relax controls on private life and political expression. Yet, Congress continues to regard Iran's conduct as hostile to US interests because they have seen no significant change of behavior by Iran in the areas of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), terrorism, the Arab-Israeli peace process, and human rights.
According to Talwar, Congress will strongly resist the unilateral removal of sanctions against Iran unless presented with clear evidence of improvement in Iran's conduct. Unfortunately, Talwar noted, Iran's recent conduct in the WMD field has given little reason for optimism. Iran's nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programs have intensified at the very time that Congress' attention has focused on WMD as the premier post-Cold War security threat.
Talwar asserted that it is inaccurate to portray the Congress as having uniformly "hard-line" attitudes toward Iran. Members of Congress recognize that Iran is a country of great strategic significance--an essential player and a potential force for stability in the Persian Gulf and wider Middle East. Most Members favor "positive gestures" by the United States toward Iran, regarding them as a means to counter "conservatives" in Iran's ruling establishment. However, realizing that US-Iran relations is a polarizing issue in Tehran, some Members are reluctant to adopt a proactive approach, lest this backfire. Others are skeptical that President Khatami has the political power to develop the idea of "road map" leading to normalization of US-Iran relations.
Record stated that the Congress is a "major player" in US policy toward Iran, and that Congress exercises power through its oversight and legislative authority. As far as Congress is concerned, US-Iran policy is at a major crossroads. Members of Congress, Record asserted, are open to and looking for ways to improve relations with Iran, provided there is evidence that Iran is taking US concerns seriously.
Over the past six months, Record observed, the Clinton Administration has taken unilateral steps to create a positive atmosphere between the United States and Iran. These initiatives include the May 1998 waiver of ILSA sanctions against the French oil firm Total' the June 1998 streamlining of visa requirements for Iranians' and the December 1998 removal of Iran from the State Department's list of primary drug producing and transiting countries. Like Katzman and Talwar, Record emphasized that, while there is support in the Congress for these gestures, Members are concerned that they might prove counter-productive. Support in the Congress for additional gestures of goodwill by the United States is lukewarm, given that Iran has not reciprocated. Record stated that US and Western European views on Iran diverge less sharply than is commonly believed. Western European leaders understand and share the US concern about Iran's WMD program and its record of support for terrorism. US and European policies toward Iran have recently converged. This has reduced the risk that continued pressure on Iran--the approach favored by the US Congress--will isolate the United States from its allies.
The second panel dealt with the State Department, the Congress and Iran. The panelists were Richard Murphy, of the Council on Foreign Relations' Robert Pelletreau, of the firm Afridi and Angell' and Danielle Pletka, of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute, served as moderator.
Murphy examined US-Iran relations during the period 1979-92 in the context of the US security role and the expanding American military presence in the Persian Gulf. According to Murphy, during the 1980s the United States assumed the security responsibility in the Gulf that Presidents Nixon and Carter had previously proclaimed. Over this period, US involvement in the Gulf progressively deepened: from brisk sales of military equipment to the GCC states, to the establishment of the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF), which was later reshaped under Centcom.
Developments in Iran and conduct by Iran were catalysts for the expansion of the US security role in the Gulf during the 1980s. In the early stages of the Iran-Iraq War, US policymakers launched Operation Staunch, which was designed to discourage arms transfers to both belligerents, but especially to Iran. In 1984 the State Department placed Iran on its terrorism list. A 1987 State Department White Paper ranked Iran the leading state supporter of terrorism.
For most of the 1980s, there was no significant tension in executive-legislative relations over policy toward Iran. As the result of the seizure of American diplomats as hostages, suspicion of and anger toward Iran was widespread in the US government. The contest between the Executive and Legislative branches was over which of the two was "better at vilifying Iran." However, Irangate disrupted this relative harmony. It also triggered efforts by the State Department to regain the control over policy toward Iran that it had lost to NSC staffers.
According to Murphy, US officials were "very concerned" about the Iran-Iraq War and its possible spillover. Iran's efforts to mine the Gulf were particularly disturbing to US officials. Iran's threats to disrupt oil tanker traffic led Kuwait to seek protection from the Soviet Union, an overture which dramatically raised the stakes for the United States. The State Department and Pentagon were both solidly in favor of a US tanker reflagging and naval escort operation.The Congress overcame its initial reluctance and supported the mission. This foreshadowed a larger and longer US military deployment in the Gulf. The tacit agreement between the Executive and Legislative branches in favor of an enhanced US military presence in the Gulf still prevails.
Whereas in the 1970s the United States had followed a "twin pillar" strategy toward the Gulf, in the 1990s the United States has followed a "twin threat" approach. In the current period, Pelletreau pointed out, the views of the United States and the GCC states have coincided: American officials and their GCC counterparts have considered both Iran and Iraq to be the primary threats to regional security. This common view has led them to strengthen the GCC's deterrent capability while developing the capacity of US and GCC military forces to interact. This "twin threat" approach, Pelletreau argued, has meshed well with Congressional attitudes about Gulf security. Congress has exerted pressure on the Administration to bolster, rather than to relax or replace, the policy of "dual containment." Regarding policy toward Iran, this pressure has aimed at tightening sanctions and cajoling or coercing US allies to observe them. According to Pelleteau, the Clinton Administration, both of its own accord and to mollify the Congress, worked tirelessly and effectively to win multilateral support for containing Iran.The Administration earned the cooperation of its European allies, as well as that of Russia and China, through the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and Wassenaar arrangements' and buttressed these efforts with vigorous bilateral diplomacy. As a result, Iran's conventional military capabilities were kept well below replacement levels. Likewise, nuclear cooperation was comprehensive and generally effective, until it broke down over the Bushehr nuclear plant issue.
The European Union's adoption of a policy of "critical dialogue" with Iran set the United States and its allies at odds, in turn prompting Congressional criticism and intervention. The Administration tried futilely to develop a common US-EU approach toward Iran. According to Pelletreau, the structure of US-EU discussions about policy toward Iran lacked continuity' meetings with the EU "troika" and rotating European Council president were held at six-month intervals. In addition, US intelligence-sharing efforts were not reciprocated, and EU standards of proof of Iranian misconduct were excessively high. European initiatives were duplicative, consisting of demarches by the EU and by individual governments. Congress nonetheless criticized the Administration's efforts as "insufficient and ineffectual."
The Administration's 1995 imposition of a total trade ban against Iran did not head off Congressional legislation. Intervention by the State Department succeeded in narrowing the scope of the "D'Amato bill," but failed to prevent the passage of ILSA. In Pelletreau's opinion, this sanctions legislation missed its intended target' the French firm Total shrewdly maneuvered around the sanctions whilst US companies were deprived of doing business in Iran.
Pelletreau noted that USA Engage has recently raised opposing considerations like the loss of US jobs and corporate profits due to sanctions on Iran. Respected (former) Members of Congress like Lee Hamilton have expressed skepticism about maintaining sanctions against Iran. There are signs of flexibility in Congress, as in support by some Members of the sale of grain to Iran. In Pelletreau's opinion, " wall-to-wall" support for sanctions in the Congress is beginning to crumble' however, it is unlikely that sanctions will be dismantled soon.
Pletka asserted that US policy toward Iran is not driven solely by Congressional "hardliners." The Clinton Administration was the author of the policy of containing Iran.The President and his foreign policy advisors were the ones who designated Iran a "terrorist state." The State Department placed Iran on the list of state supporters of terrorism. The Executive branch, not Congress, severed diplomatic links with Iran and seems little eager to restore them.
The first major piece of sanctions legislation, Pletka noted, was the 1992 Iran-Iraq Non-Proliferation. The State Department opposed this legislation. Three years later, however, Russia and Iran signed a deal to complete construction of the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, validating the arguments of those who had championed the Iran-Iraq Non-Proliferation Act. The Bushehr deal signified to many Members of Congress that the Administration's approach to Iran was timid. This judgment was confirmed by the Administration's "meek" response to China's sale of C-802 missiles to Iran--weapons which Members regarded as destabilizing. The passage of ILSA was a sign of growing Congressional frustration with the Administration. This law, which embodies the Congressional approach to Iran, reflects the view of Congress that the United States cannot influence Iranian intentions, though it can affect Iran's capabilities. The Administration has protested publicly that ILSA hamstrings its efforts, but has actually used the legislation as a means of discouraging the construction of pipelines through Iran.
In Pletka's opinion, Congress continues to be dissatisfied with the performance of the Administration regarding policy toward Iran. Whereas Members of Congress support people-to-people contacts, many are skeptical that these will lead to significant changes in Iranian behavior on the issues that matter most to the United States. In contrast, sanctions against Iran have worked, are hurting Iran, and offer the best chance for moderating Iranian behavior.
The third panel was devoted to the role and influence of interest groups on US sanctions against Iran. Brad Gordon of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Frank Kittredge of the National Foreign Trade Council were the panleists. Maria Robinson of the Office of Congressman Ney was the discussant. Andrew Parasiliti, MEI director of programs, served as moderator.
Gordon argued that Iran continues to pose a threat to US interests. According to the latest State Department report on terrorism, Iranian support for Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hizbollah remains in place. Iranian officials continue hurling invectives at Israel and oppose the Arab-Israeli peace process. American allies in the region, including Egypt and Israel, share US concerns about this behavior and about Iran's WMD programs.
Gordon described the results of the May 1997 presidential election in Iran as "intriguing." In the Iranian context, Gordon noted, Khatami is a "moderate." Yet, Gordon asserted, Khatami has been unable, if not unwilling, to bring about significant changes in Iran's policies. In fact, since Khatami took office, Iran's WMD programs have actually accelerated.
In recent months, Gordon stated, the Clinton Administration has extended a number of unilateral goodwill gestures toward Iran. Secretary of State Albright's concept of a "road map" implies parallel steps. The United States should maintain sanctions while waiting for, but not counting on, concrete responses from Iran. These responses might take the form of a signal of interest by Iran to enter back channel discussions with US officials' or Iran's cessation of support for terrorist groups operating in and against Israel, and less hostile rhetoric toward Israel.
As Iranians themselves have acknowledged, sanctions have limited the availability of hard currency with which to purchase strategic imports and implement infrastructure projects. According to Gordon, the cost to the US economy of keeping sanctions against Iran in place is "minuscule." In Gordon's opinion, sanctions will eventually help produce the changes in Iran that the Iranian people want and the changes in Iran's behavior that the United States seeks.
Kittredge offered a rejoinder to Gordon's remarks. Kittredge expressed concern about the the proliferation of sanctions, emphasizing the risks and costs of sanctions on Iran and challenging the view of Pletka and Gordon that these sanctions have "worked."
Citing studies by the Institute for International Economics (IIE) and others, Kittredge argued that sanctions rarely, if ever, work. He asserted that sanctions are even less likely to work in a globalized economy, where goods are easily substituted for those withdrawn by the United States from the targeted market. He stated that proponents of sanctions tend to underestimate the losses of American jobs and export revenues, not to mention the incalculable damage to the reputation of US firms as "reliable suppliers." Kittredge also noted that sanctions are likely to impose further hardship on the poor, while seldom adversely affecting the regime.
Regarding Iran, Kittredge stated that the US business community does not condone Iran's behavior. Business leaders share the concerns of US policymakers about Iran's WMD programs, support for terrorism, opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process, and violation of human rights. However, Kittredge noted, there is no evidence that sanctions have, or can succeed in modifying Iran's behavior. He urged flexibility in the sanctions approach, and favored the proposed US grain sale to Iran. In general, Kittredge recommended a new approach to sanctions. He proposed establishing a "deliberative process" for considering when to impose sanctions. Kittredge also advocated that sanctions be applied for specified periods of time, subject to regular review. He urged that all US sanctions allow for exceptions, incorporate presidential waiver authority, and uphold the principle of the sanctity of contract.
Members of Congress have generally supported the Clinton Administration's goodwill gestures toward Iran, but are aware that Iran has not reciprocated.
Echoing the views of other panelists, Robinson stated that sanctions are easier to impose than to remove. Some "forcing action" is needed to cause Congress to lift sanctions. Currently, Members of Congress have no incentive to remove the sanctions against Iran. According to Robinson, there is neither a groundswell of public sentiment nor sufficient interest group pressure nor clear evidence of a change in the pattern of Iranian behavior to impel such action.
In Robinson's opinion, laying the groundwork for a revision of Congress' approach to Iran will require hard work and perseverance. Interested parties must "educate" Members of Congress about the subtle and significant changes, if any, taking place in Iran or in Iran's pattern of behavior. Robinson stated that people-to-people contacts can help erode the legacy of mistrust between the two countries and indirectly influence Congressional attitudes toward Iran.
According to Robinson,both the US and Iranian governments need "face-saving approaches" or methods and channels to "talk about talking." Therefore, it is probably unrealistic to expect a dramatic opening of an official dialogue between the United States and Iran. It might be more useful, Robinson suggested, to think in terms of relaxing, rather than removing, sanctions. The gradual easing of sanctions and narrowing of their scope to focus on weapons and dual-use technologies might constitute an approach that Congress would find palatable.
The last panel was devoted to the media, the US Congress and Iran. Loren Jenkins of National Public Radio and Barbara Slavin of USA Today were the panelists. Bahman Baktiari of the University of Maine served as moderator.
Jenkins discussed the sparse media coverage of developments in Iran. In general, since the end of the Cold War, the amount of space and time allocated by US media to world news has decreased. With staff reductions, news services are stretched thin. Despite the Middle East's size and complexity, relatively few journalists are assigned to the region.
In the case of news coverage of Iran, this situation is further complicated by the problem of access. Jenkins stated that, for journalists to obtain a visa to Iran is generally a difficult and seemingly arbitrary process. Moreover, authorities do little to assist foreign reporters and to some extent obstruct their work. The net effect of these impediments is for journalists to rely on outsiders for their information. This sacrifices both accuracy and objectivity, and thus impairs the quality of reporting about Iran.
According to Jenkins, foreign news editors are aware of the political changes taking place in Iran. They know that there is a power struggle going on in Iran, that Iranian political views are diverse, and that, in terms of political expression, the atmosphere in Iran is more relaxed now than in the past. Thus, Jenkins argued, were Iranian authorities to address the problem of "access" for foreign journalists, press coverage of Iran would be more thorough and perhaps more positive.
Slavin offered her impressions of Iran and the policies of the Iranian government toward the foreign press. During her visit to Iran (before President Khatami was elected to office), Slavin noticed that Iranian authorities made an effort to be accommodating. She was also "pleasantly surprised" by the "palpable hunger" of the Iranian people to learn about the United States. Sanctions, Slavin argued, have made US products "forbidden fruit," and thus have increased Iranians' interest in acquiring them.
Slavin attributed the scant coverage of Iran by the American press to the "loss of momentum" following President Khatami's CNN interview. Since that event, there have been no significant breakthroughs or initiatives by either side. In Slavin's opinion, this is because editors tend to favor the "dramatic" story over the "incremental" one.
According to Slavin, there is residual media interest in Iran. Reporters and their editors recognize that Iran is an important country with a rich history and culture, located in a volatile region where the US has vital interests. Iranian authorities can be confident that, if they take modest steps to facilitate reporting on Iran, foreign journalists will go to Iran with open minds in manageable numbers. Ruhollah Ramazani, Professor Emeritus of the University of Virginia, made the closing remarks.
Ramazani challenged the "new analytical orthodoxy" that dominates US thinking about and dealing with Iran. This "Manichean factional perspective" depicts everything in Iran in terms of "darkness and light." According to Ramazani, every political system consists of factions vying for power. A preoccupation with factional struggles may lead to poor understanding of Iran and inappropriate responses to developments taking place there. Ramazani recommended that we strive to uncover "expressions of the collective will that cut across factional lines" in Iran. To better understand Iran and to determine whether an imporvement in US-Iran relations is indeed possible, he posed these questions: Are there any salient principles that shape Iranian politics besides endemic factionalism? Could the United States find such principles compatible with its own?
The struggle against foreign interference and domestic authoritarianism, Ramazani stated, are "the most salient principles of Iran's domestic politics and foreign policy." Iran experienced three political crises in this century: the 1907 Constitutional Revolution, the period of Mossadegh's premiership in the early 1950s, and the 1979 revolution. The net effect of these crises was to give priority to independence over liberty.
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