Crisis reopens debate on U.S. policy toward Iran Experts question isolation of 'international outlaw'

September 22, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Unexpectedly, the crisis with Iraq has revived a debate on a taboo subject: whether, after all these years, the United States needs better relations with Iran in order to pursue its interests in the Persian Gulf.

The mere existence of the debate doesn't mean that the Clinton administration can suddenly have a relationship with the country it has branded an "international outlaw" -- or that it should even try.

Iran, after all, has been the lost cause of U.S. foreign policy ever since the ayatollahs overthrew the monarchy 17 years ago, and its officials have not signaled any serious desire to deal with Washington. Iran still supports groups and activities the United States calls terrorist. It shops for advanced nuclear technology in Europe, flouts human rights standards, retains a death decree for the novelist Salman Rushdie and opposes peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

On the other hand, Iran has not developed into the expansionist regional threat that successive administrations predicted it would become. U.S. intelligence pronouncements on Iran's vast military expenditures and the development of a nuclear weapons program have turned out to be exaggerated or at least premature.

And U.S. officials have been unable to produce enough hard evidence to persuade America's friends that Iran is, as Washington claims, the world's greatest state sponsor of terrorism.

Besides, Iran, unlike some of its neighbors, seems to have a predictable political future: a clerical regime with an elected president and parliament (however flawed its democracy may be by Western standards) that faces no serious internal threat.

So with America's position in the region now in question, a number of policy experts have begun asking whether the U.S. might hope for a better way to deal with Iran.

Iran, with its vast population, its huge oil reserves and its location between the Caucasus and the Arab world, has traditionally been the dominant power in the Persian Gulf. And the recent crisis has exposed the weakness of America's links to its two closest friends in the region, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

This, in turn, focuses attention on the power vacuum that has existed in the region since Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, and on the absence of a long-term strategy by the United States to ensure its access to gulf oil.

The current policy of "dual containment" (treating Iran and Iraq as if they are equal threats) bans U.S.-Iranian trade, punishes foreign companies that invest heavily in Iran's oil industry and has no support from any of America's allies except Israel.

The policy also seeks to thwart Iran's efforts, with its neighbors, to develop the vast oil and gas resources in the Caspian Sea, by barring U.S. companies from a role in any consortium that includes Iran. The question being raised now is: Is this the wisest course for the United States?

Proponents of a fresh approach to Iran feel the moment has come to forcefully argue their case. One of the most articulate is Zbigniew Brzezinski, who, as national security adviser during the Carter administration, advocated a military coup to prevent the ayatollahs from coming to power. He is now saying that America should reconsider whether Iran should once again be a counterweight to Iraq.

"I do not see any reason why we should be pursuing a policy of isolating Iran, because Iran, if we pursue hostility toward it, makes it more difficult to isolate Iraq," he said on CNN last week. Others insist that while Iran needs to be contained militarily, the use of economic sanctions -- a policy opposed by America's allies in Europe and Asia -- isolates the United States more than it does Iran.

"What we are doing with our current sanctions policy is simply strengthening the radical elements that are making the United States into the devil, into the enemy, into the threat," Anthony Cordesman, a military expert on the Middle East at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said at a Senate hearing several days ago.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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