Observations on the Gary Sick interview
By Guive Mirfendereski
December 3, 1997
The interview with Gary Sick, a former advisor with the national security council in the Cater administration, was both timely and informative. It does raise a few provocative points which need amplification.
FIRST, President Khatami's election may be a watershed event, but not necessarily for the future of U.S.-Iran relations. It is submitted that a foreign policy based on who comes to office in one country or another does not seem to be a very stable way to build relations. For example, when President Clinton and officials in his administration went on the record publicly and backed Mr. Peres against Mr. Netanyahu in the Israeli election, America lost the moral authority or leverage with the eventual winner of that tightly-contested race; the self-fulfilling prophecy of damage to the Middle East peace process then followed. The future of U.S.-Iran relations needs to be based on neutral geopolitical and economic/commercial considerations, not on who is elected here or there. While the U.S. administration may be feeling fuzzy and warm about Mr. Khatami's election, Mr. Khatami's opponents in Iran are sure to become even more ardent anti-Americans.
SECOND, in order to develop and identify the apolitical areas of common economic and commercial interests, one must allow commercial ties to develop first. To that extent, Mr. Sick's dismissal of commercial ties as catalyst for change is not justified. Historically, politics and diplomacy follow the merchants, the flag follows the money. Not the other way around. Despite the multiple layers of U.S. trade sanctions imposed on Iran, according to reports from the Associated Press, some six to eight million dollars of U.S.-origin goods enter Iran every quarter. Apparently, there are thousands of credit cards in use in Iran whose balances are paid by the cardholders out of funds held in U.S. banking or financial institutions. While this may a testament to the porous nature of the global economy, it does not bode well for small U.S. businesses who cannot exploit these opportunities, legal or illegal. Last month alone, a client had to forego even considering an offer to sell for delivery to Iran a total of one million dollars in products. On the grand scheme of things, the amount may be nothing, but for a small U.S. business the revenue from the sale could have made all of the difference in terms of higher wages, research and development, and remaining competitive. Instead, the client is losing business to its European competitors and at the same time could be falling behind the competition domestically.
THIRD, no other form of human endeavor can lead to greater confidence building and nurturing of trust than when two parties negotiate and enter into a private ordering of their relations, each motivated by self-interest but mindful of the advantages of mutual benefit. In order to witness one day the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Iran at the political and diplomatic levels, one may want to consider encouraging the red-establishment of trade relations between the private sectors in Iran and the U.S. first. The first step here would be for the U.S. to lift the sanctions against the sale of U.S.-origin goods to the private sector in Iran, followed by lifting of sanctions as to sale of goods to the Iranian government. While this allows the U.S. companies to do business in Iran, it would also address the crux of the logic persued by Senator D'Amato that less cash in the hands of Iranians less is spent in pursuit of questionable adventures by the Iranian government.
FOURTH, while lifting of sanctions with respect to sale of products to Iran is one step, the U.S. may want to consider unfreezing of Iranian assets at the first opportune moment. An opportunity to do so can present itself at the next occurrence of a natural or environmental disaster in Iran, for which reason the U.S. should unfreeze the assets to enable the Iranian government to cope with the situation, with no strings attached. This will be a mutually acceptable face-saving device to remove the thorny assets issue.
FIFTH, the U.S. concern with respect to Iran's pursuit of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons capabilities is legitimate. Yet, what is missing from the analysis of this subject matter, with respect to both Iran and Iraq, is the following: Has the U.S. or any other concerned country ever asked Iran why it requires these weapons? If the U.S. asked, it would hear one or more of the following responses: (i) "we want these weapons so we can dominate the region, annihilate you and your client states;" (ii) we want these weapons for defensive purposes because we remember the decade-long war with our neighbor that sapped us, while you and your Arab allies poured billions into the other side's war effort;" or (iii) we want these weapons because others around us have them too." Necessarily, if the U.S. and the international community worked to remove the threat(s) perceived by the "rogue" countries and worked to disarm the whole region of these weapons and ensured peace in the region, no country in its right mind would invest so much in these weapons. And if the U.S. buys into the argument that in some cases these weapons, particularly of the nuclear variety reputed to be owned by Israel, are necessary for self-preservation, then the U.S. must allow every other country the benefit of the same logic.
SIXTH, Iran's perceived contribution to the derailing of the Middle East peace process may be an exaggeration: Ultimately, the responsibility for the snags in these talks belongs to the players and not a few noisy spectators occasionally lobbing a snow ball into the fray. Nevertheless, the only viable option in the Middle East for a comprehensive peace is for Iran to be made a part of the solution. Israel, even under Mr. Netayahu's administration, understands this: It was only a while back when reports surfaced that Israel was willing to pay back Iran the monies that Iran had lent to it prior to the 1979 revolution. At the time, Iran and Israel had a fabulously rewarding relationship, which, in spite of its political difficulties, was based on common geopolitical and commercial interests. Nor was the presence of these mutualities lost on the Reagan Administration during whose stewardship of U.S. foreign policy, Israel acted as a willing conduit for a variety of transactions between U.S. and Iran, and some for its own account.
The willingness on the part of either the U.S. or Iran, maybe both, to admit that one day there will be a meaningful relationship between the U.S. and Iran is the first step toward that eventuality. The next query would be as to the circumstances which can bring about the relationship -- not conditions precedent to talks or anything like that, but rather to imagine the relationship itself as it would at that time. In that relationship, all other external issues like Hamas, future of Jerusalem, weapons, and several other matters may be discussed but not debated. When it comes to building relationships, the recipe here should be the same that the U.S. followed with respect to shedding its inhibitions toward the future of its relations with such ideological adversaries as the former U.S.S.R., China, Vietnam, and others. For this to pass, either Washington or Tehran, or both, must see the need to have a relationship. The overwhelming necessity for the relationship is to be able to communicate with respect to issues mutual interest, or perhaps even to create or develop common interests. Resolving differences should come later - much later.
* Also by Guive Mirfendereski:
Rouge is relative -- When it comes to one's national interest, every country is a rogue state.
* Building trust -- An interview with former U.S. National Security Council staff member Gary Sick.
* THE IRANIAN Opinion section
* Iran News
* Complete list of Iranian online media
About the author
Guive Mirfendereski is a corporate and international lawyer in private practice in Newton, Massachusetts. He has held adjunct appointments at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Brandeis University. He has advised foreign governments and international organizations on commercial law revision, privatization, and legal reform.
He holds a JD from Boston College Law School; a PhD in international law, an MA in law and diplomacy, an MA in international affairs from the Fletcher School, and a BA in government from Georgetown University.
His recent publications include: "The Toponymy of the Tonb Islands," published in "Iranian Journal" (Summer/Fall 1996), and "The Ownership of the Tonb Islands: A Legal Analysis," a chapter in "Small Islands, Big Politics" (1996 St. Martin's Press, New York).