"Your grandma and I have decided to live together."
Courtesy, S. Gross, The New Yorker
Proceed. With caution.
Former U.S. assistant secretary of state on Iran-U.S. relations
May 5, 1998
Speech entitled "The Prospects for US-Iranian Dialogue" given by Richard Murphy to the conference of the Center For Iranian Research And Analysis (CIRA) at Portland State University on April 25, 1998. Murphy is director of Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.
America is experiencing an international wave of criticism against its policies towards Iran, the "rogue state" as we have long been accustomed to label it. These criticisms have sharpened over the past year in the wake of the election of President Mohammed Khatemi. He is an Iranian spokesman who does not demonize Washington as the "Great Satan."
For nearly two decades Tehran and Washington competed in rhetorical slanging matches and there were no serious and sustained efforts to find common ground for a dialogue. His words and actions have given a new legitimacy to debating the merits of US-Iranian dialogue, something which Washington considered beyond reach a year ago.
A new assertiveness in American business circles, pursuing its interests in the Persian Gulf region and Central Asia, has also contributed to what I sense is increased ferment in official Washington thinking about Iran. This all comes at a time when the U S management of the Middle East peace process has aroused more criticism than support among our closest friends in Europe and Asia.
Iran never lost its image for Washington observers as a key player in the Gulf region -- that part of the Middle East which preoccupies international strategists concerned about the security of the world's energy resources. But for several years, debate over making any effort to rebuild US-Iranian relations has been inextricably linked to American decisions concerning neighboring Iraq which the US led coalition expelled from Kuwait in 1991. This linkage has reinforced a tendency to think of both Iran and Iraq as military threats to US interests in the Gulf region.
America has had a military presence in the PersianGulf for almost five decades. In 1971 we inherited responsibility for Gulf security from Great Britain which withdrew its forces under its "East of Suez" doctrine. In the 70's we bore lightly the responsibility for Gulf security, relaying in the early part of the decade on the Shah's regime to maintain stability and to a degree during the Iran-Iraq war of the 80's on Iraq. By the end of the 80's, however, the US Navy was escorting reflagged Kuwait tankers under attack by Iran and had themselves clashed with the Iranian fleet. Today, Washington is the hegemon of the Gulf and, in the name of assuring Gulf security, the US has basically sought to keep a balance of weakness between Iraq and Iran.
The odds are that the US will maintain a significant military presence in the Gulf for years to come. This is largely because of the Gulf's role as a major energy supplier to the world, today of oil, tomorrow of oil and gas. The US is not ready to step aside and trust any regional state to dominate decisions on Middle Eastern oil production and pricing.
America's military presence, whatever its future size, will continue to irritate both Iraq and Iran. Iranian opposition to that presence for the moment is probably exaggerated. Iran does not want Saddam, against whom it fought a bloody eight year war, to again threaten it or the region. For Iran, our military presence will, for awhile, be an unwelcome but necessary constraint on Iraqi ambitions.
If there is no serious and enduring threat to regional security from Iraq or Iran, we will undoubtedly scale down our military presence, owing both to budgetary considerations and our realization that the Arab governments which host our personnel and equipment will want us to be less visible. These hosts, including Saudi Arabia, were reluctant to stand publicly by our side in the latest confrontation with Iraq. Their position reflected two facts: first, their doubt that we were ready to invest enough military power, read American ground forces, to overthrow the Iraqi regime and, second, awareness that Saddam was proving increasingly persuasive to their own public opinion through pounding on the theme that quote/unquote "imperialistic sanctions" were solely responsible for the sufferings of his people. Another important process is that launched by Saudi Arabia to ease its long standing tensions with Iran through an exchange of high level visits and agreement to the mutual opening of airports to Iranian and Saudi national airlines.
Thus, the difficulties we have had in our relations with Iraq for a decade and with Iran for nearly twice that time have left a residue of fresh and, for American leaders, bitter memories. But since the passage of years has frayed international support for sanctions on Iraq as well as increased tensions with our allies over how to handle Iran, the time has come for a major policy review. Given the recent trend of events, Iran is the more hopeful arena for creative US leadership.
Throughout the 80's, memories of the humiliating seizure of our Tehran Embassy and holding hostage its personnel, poisoned our attitude towards Iran. We had reason to suspect an Iranian hand in the seizure of American hostages in Beirut, some of whom remained under detention into the 90's. In 1993 the Clinton Administration spoke of adopting a unified approach to Iran and Iraq under the formula of "Dual Containment" This stifled debate in Washington about alternative ways of dealing with these dissimilar countries.
The election of a Republican Congress served to goad the White House into issuing a series of Presidential Executive Orders restricting US-Iranian trade and finally to acquiesce in the Iran Libya Sanctions act of 1996 which terminated that trade. Should Washington decide to chart a new course towards Tehran, these political facts will limit the Administration's flexibility.
For his part, President Khatemi, who has spoken eloquently about his respect for Western achievements and how Iran might benefit from them, is not free to open an official dialogue with the US. Instead he has proposed a period of increased cultural and educational exchanges. Washington has agreed and is undertaking to simplify visa procedures for Iranian applicants. It has also reaffirmed its long held position that it is ready to deal with an authorized Iranian government representative to discuss our respective complaints.
Our complaints are all too familiar to this audience:
1. Iranian support for international terrorism;
2. Its support for the use of violence against the Arab-Israeli peace process; and
3. Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapons program.
Tehran has denied the validity of these American charges but US and European intelligence agencies have reported evidence of all three. Washington refuses to cite the evidence behind its charges because doing so would jeopardize sources and methods used in gathering the intelligence. Iranians have replied that this has put them in the impossible position of proving the negative.
Despite the encouraging substance and tone of Khatami's statements, the new president himself has made it clear that he is not Iran's sole decision maker, whether in domestic or foreign policy. We know, for example, that he does not control all of Iran's intelligence services. These owe their allegiance to various clerics many of whose attitudes towards the West in general, and the US in particular, are not as benign as those which Khatemi professes. This is not said to minimize the importance of Khatemi's views or of his surprising electoral victory last May when he won 70% of the popular vote in a campaign which most assumed had been rigged in favor of another candidate. But it does mean we cannot assume a unity of approach by Tehran to the United States.
While the Iranian revolution has lost some of its original steam, particularly the conviction it could inspire comparable revolutions elsewhere in the Islamic world, the present leadership still includes those who resent our dominant world position, who see American culture as hostile to what they want for Iran and who deeply oppose America's military presence in the Gulf. The recent uproar over the arrest of Tehran mayor Karbaschi is a reminder that there may be important pressure groups ready to derail any effort to improve US-Iranian relations by means which would also be intended to damage the advocates of improvement.
There have been positive changes in tone used by both the White House and the Iranian Presidency. These have been cost free to us and clearly welcome to the Iranian public. I also commend to everyone's attention the April 15 speech of Congressman Lee Hamilton on reassessing US policy toward Iran. This remarkable document is the most forthright and comprehensive commentary on the need for a change to come from the US Congress.
How should Washington plan to move ahead? One obvious course, but difficult to accomplish, would be to gradually dismantle the American sanctions regime. This would encourage the Iranian leaders who want better relations with Washington.
Two weeks ago there was a day long conference at Columbia University where the cultural attache from Iran's UN mission encouraged the business men and NGO representatives in attendance to visit and pursue their interest in Iran. We have many ways to facilitate Iran's gaining access to international credit and investments in order to revitalize its energy sector. And American business is eager to be allowed a role in this fruitful sector.
For the foreseeable future, President Khatemi has set the limits on the pace and extent of US-Iranian contacts. He wants to change the equation through a period of private sector exchanges, presumably in the expectation this will make it easier for Tehran one day to engage in official exchanges. He may share the views of more junior Iranian officials that a dialogue with Washington today would in actuality be just an American monologue, devoted to reciting a list of American charges against Iran, rather than a dialogue between equals. They question America's readiness for a dialogue, recalling the embarrassment suffered by some in Tehran when the American Administration compelled the Conoco company to abandon the oil exploration deal which it had initialed with Tehran in 1995. They also point to recent evidence where prominent American officials have explicitly sought the overthrow of the Islamic Republic regime, quoting House Speaker Gingrich's call for an appropriation to do just that. A further example occurred earlier this month, when Congress called to create and fund a "Radio Free Iran." The annual State Department report on terrorism will again this year reportedly carry some harsh language about Iran and the investigation into the al- Khobar towers bombing remains open.
Despite all this, Iranian political signals to Washington have nonetheless continued. Foreign Minister Karrazi's recent comments related to the Arab-Israeli peace process are intriguing. First was his comment about Israel's stated readiness to withdraw from south Lebanon in accordance with UNSC resolution 425 saying that this withdrawal would effectively end the mission of the Hizbollah militia. Second, and equally welcome, was his comment that Iran would not oppose a Palestinian-Israeli agreement acceptable to the Palestinians. Incidentally, this was reminiscent of former President Rafsanjani's comment a few years ago that Syria had the sovereign right to reach an agreement with Israel.
I would urge Washington to keep six points in mind as it ponders how best to develop a new relationship with Iran.
First, proceed with caution recognizing the depth of American ignorance about present day Iran. Iranian government structures have always been complex and are surely no less so today. There are, for example, several official intelligence agencies and we should not assume they are under Khatemi's control or indeed any single centralized control.
Second, guard against hubris in entertaining the suggestion we should try to play the Iranian card against Iraq. To mix a metaphor, Persians may not have invented chess but they play it better than most Americans and are apt to be several moves ahead of us in any such game.
Third, be prepared with proposals for an overall settlement of the outstanding claims before the Hague Tribunal. I understand the Iranian representative to the Tribunal has already informally floated the idea of moving to a general settlement.
Fourth, make a closer study of Iranian foreign policy as a whole, through taking into account its efforts to advance Iran's national interests in Central Asia, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Washington has tended to focus on the Iranian threats to Israel and the Arab Gulf states and to ignore Iran's normal and acceptable national interest in insuring it is not threatened from the north and east and is straightforwardly pursuing a policy of expanding commercial ties in Central Asia.
Fifth, do not lock the door prematurely against the prospect of some new pipeline routes transiting Iran from Central Asia. The routing of new pipelines will have major political and economic implications for years to come. Some elements in the United States stand today sternly against any easing of US sanctions on Iran. Depending on how the US-Iranian dialogue develops, they may be more ready to rethink their positions in the coming months and years. If the international oil companies do not need immediate approvals on pipeline routes, Washington should not act today to eliminate Iran as one possible route.
Sixth, stay in close touch with the influential lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to influence its thinking about how to encourage trends in Iran supportive of US and Israeli interests. That organization was a driving force influencing congressional attitudes on legislation which has served to rigidify American policy towards Iran in years past. Its support for redirection of America's Iran policies will be highly desirable.
In conclusion, I would like to make one further proposal which has implications well beyond the framework of my talk today but one which could prove a fertile field for our policy makers to explore: American sponsorship of a regional arms regime, possibly to include certain weapons of mass destruction, for the Persian Gulf states. I introduce this proposal with diffidence because I myself did not have the experience of participating in the complex and dauntingly difficult arms control negotiations between the US and Soviets or in those established between Israel and the front line Arab states by the Madrid summit in 1991
This American Administration is convinced, as its predecessors have been, that arms control is an issue on which it must take the lead whatever the temporary costs to our specific bilateral relations might be. At the same time, the US is vulnerable to the charge that we have not shown equal concern for the fact that other countries in the region, notably Israel, Syria, Pakistan and India, all possess one or more categories of the weapons of mass destruction.
In any event, it is evident that fear of the neighbor's intentions prevails throughout the Gulf region and many are pursuing programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. The control regime I have in mind would initially include Iran, Iraq and the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Including Iran and Iraq would be a goal for which, I believe, we would find support in Moscow and Europe and would be one which China would not oppose. As for Iran, some of its senior diplomats have suggested they would welcome such discussions.
Arms control talks never resolved basic political issues or averted security competition between the United States and the Soviet Union but did help moderate and stabilize confrontations on the margin. They also helped prevent unintended and unnecessary crises.
We must accept that WMD will continue to be studied and developed in the Persian Gulf and broader Middle East. The Iraq situation has sensitized us as to how cheap it is to make chemical and germ warfare agents and how easy it is to hide them. Nevertheless, we may discover that the Gulf situation contains some of the same problems which we once wrestled in negotiating arms control with the Soviet Union and that some similar opportunities may exist . Arms control steps such as hot lines, transparency of exercises and discussions of mutual needs and force structures could prove useful.
Many regional leaders unfortunately combine a sense of disbelief mixed with fatalism about the massive destructive power of the weapons of mass destruction. Regional leaders, friendly to Washington, assume that if weapons of mass destruction are all that important then the US will somehow manage the issue. To create any kind of regional arms control regime will require a US lead. I can think of no other single effort we could make which would bring greater eventual benefit to American interests, and to the security and well being of Iranians and the broader region.
other peace process
Tips on how Iran and the U.S. should start normalizing their relations.
By Guive Mirfendereski & Najmedin Meshkati