The Khatemi Factor: How Much Does It Matter?

Article excerpt

Since early last year, an increasing number of voices have been calling for the relaxation of U.S. economic sanctions against Iran and, indeed, for a general ratcheting down of the U.S. effort to isolate Iran diplomatically. These have not been just any voices: Very senior former U.S. government officials have been involved, including former National Security Advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, and former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Richard Murphy.(1) Similar pronouncements have been made by former Ambassadors David Mack and William Rugh, by Rep. Lee Hamilton (senior Democrat on the House International Relations Committee), and by former National Security Council staffer Richard Haass (now director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution) among many others.(2) Many if not most of these ministrations, it is worth noting, were voiced before the election of Mohammed Khatemi to the Iranian presidency this past summer.

Those arguing for a relaxation of sanctions have done so on several grounds. First, they point out that while American sanctions against Iran have exacted some pain over the nearly two decades in which they have been in effect, they have clearly failed to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees, and appear unlikely to do so in the future. Indeed, they may even retard change by enabling the clerical leadership more easily to demonize the United States in the eyes of the Iranian people. Second, they argue that U.S. sanctions have not stopped Iran from supporting terrorism abroad, attacking the Arab-Israeli peace process, or pursuing weapons of mass destruction. Third, critics point out that since they are unilateral, American sanctions have not prevented the mullahs from selling all the oil they wish to Western Europe and Japan; fourth, that by penalizing foreign firms that invest in the Iranian petroleum sector, the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 has irritated relations with our most important Western allies far more than it has irritated Iran. Fifth, several observers - not least among them Frederick Starr writing in these pages last spring - noted that American success in preventing the newly independent states of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan from exporting their oil and gas via Iran (the cheapest route) only heightened the exposure of both their valuable resources and their political autonomy to an unstable and mendacious Russia.(3) Sixth, several observers complained that sanctions had the effect of benefiting U.S. commercial rivals that otherwise would not have had such an easy time - the French Total deal with Iran being a good case in point. Finally, some observers called for improving U.S.-Iranian relations as a means of accruing leverage against Iraq, a country that, at least for the time being, arguably represents a greater threat to U.S. and allied interests than does Iran.(4)

Taken together, these arguments seemed to many analysts in and out of government to make a good deal of sense, if for no other reason than that they satisfied a desire to bring the full range of American geopolitical assets back into play. Throughout the first half of 1997 the case for change began to catch on, and there arose an expectation that the sheer weight of the logic being tossed about would sooner or later induce significant adjustment in U.S. policy toward Iran.(5)

But until quite recently, the critique of U.S. policy toward Iran did not produce such a change, and the reason is very instructive. It is that the actual state of Iranian-American relations and the detailed evaluation of available diplomatic options for maneuver has mattered a great deal less than where Iran is seen to fit within the overall pattern of American relations with revolutionary states. The simple truth is that the particulars of the Iranian case pale before the general disposition of U.S. attitudes toward those we deem ideological troublemakers. …