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US, in grand retreat, launches charm offensive at Iran

Zafar Bangash

Compulsions of geography and economics have combined to frustrate America’s political designs in Central Asia, forcing Washington to revise its policy vis-a-vis Iran. Its policy of attempting to deny Iran any role in the development plans of the Central Asian Republics and Caspian Sea region in tatters, American officials have started the climb-down couched in language designed to camouflage the retreat.

First came the announcement by US secretary of State Madeleine Albright on June 17 at the Asia Society meeting in New York inviting Tehran to take steps ‘leading to normal relations.’ The charm offensive was then joined by US president Bill Clinton himself the following day who said he had had lengthy discussions with Albright prior to her New York speech on the subject. Repeating the phrase first used by Iranian president Mohammed Khatami in his January 7 interview with CNN, Albright said, ‘As the wall of mistrust comes down, we can develop with the Islamic Republic, when it is ready, a roadmap leading to normal relations.’ There were far more earthly reasons for her proposal. Frank Ketteridge, vice president of America’s National Foreign Trade Council said on June 18 that US business interests had suffered as a result of Washington’s policy.

Aware that the US climbdown must be couched in sufficiently tough language so as not to give the impression of a cave-in, Albright said ‘If such a process can be initiated and sustained in a way that addresses the concerns of both sides, then we in the United States can see the prospect of a very different relationship.’ She went on: ‘We are ready to explore further ways to build mutual confidence and avoid misunderstandings. The Islamic Republic should consider parallel steps.’

In what must surely be a first for an American politician, Albright said, ‘We fully respect Iran’s sovereignty. We understand and respect its fierce desire to maintain independence. We do not seek to overthrow its government. But we ask that Iran live up to its commitments to the international community.’ This is quite a change from October 1995 when the US congress had authorised $20 million to overthrow the Islamic government in Tehran. Albright’s speech came a few hours after Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Hadi Nejad-Hosseinian had described US policy as driven by ‘myopic interests.’ The Iranian envoy was speaking at a policy forum sponsored by Middle East Insight Magazine in Washington. As part of US hostility towards Tehran, the movement of Iran’s UN diplomats is restricted to a 25-mile radius around New York. Nejad-Hosseinian was given special permission to travel from New York to Washington.

‘Taking all recent developments into account, we subscribe to the view that the United States policy toward Iran, driven by myopic interests, and influenced by certain countries and groups with vested interests in perpetuating US hostility toward Iran, is lagging far behind the developments in our region and remains oblivious to change.’ Nejad-Hosseinian while recognizing the positive tone for a change in US policy called for its substantiation by actions. He said ‘many American officials tend to view Iran and the region with a cold war mentality (resulting in) baseless allegations and futile projects against Iran.’ One of these he identified as the US Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 which imposes sanctions against countries or companies investing $20 million or more in Iran’s energy sector. Washington, however, has retreated in the face of stiff opposition from its allies, especially France, which has taken strong exception to America’s extraterritorial laws.

The French oil company, Total, which signed a US$2 billion deal with Iran to develop the Pars oil and gas fields in the Persian Gulf, forced Washington to back off. The US retreat was announced by president Bill Clinton in May during the G-8 summit in Birmingham, England.

It is in Central Asia and the Caspian Sea region, however, that Uncle Sam has had to eat his biggest humble pie. Prior to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, these republics could not deal with the outside world on their own terms. All policy was dictated by Moscow.

The collapse of the Soviet Union radically altered the old equation. Iran is now the natural focal point through which the eight mostly-landlocked States can reach the outside world. That geographical reality is reinforced by the strong desire of these States to reduce their dependence on Russia. Washington has been trying, with offers of aid and investment, to prevent them from dealing with Iran. Concurrently, the US has tried to find alternative routes for oil and gas from Central Asia and the Caspian Sea, by-passing Iran. In this, however, Uncle Sam has been singularly unsuccessful. Nimble footwork by Tehran and the sheer logic of geography have brought these republics closer to Iran.

Apart from offering trade and transport possibilities, Iran has at various times mediated in regional disputes, such as between opposing factions in Tajikistan, between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the Karabakh dispute, and the Afghan civil war. The US, on the other hand, has sided with the Armenian aggressors. While the Armenians have occupied Karabakh - a vast swath of Azeri territor - it is Baku which has been subjected to US sanctions, thanks to the strength of the American- Armenian lobby in US domestic politics, especially in congress.

Iran is the number one exporter to Armenia, mainly in food, manufactured goods and machinery, while Iran is Armenia’s second biggest export market, mainly in metals and building materials. Iran also supplies some 10 percent of Armenia’s electricity demands. The key importance to Armenia of relations with Iran is thus clear. The same holds true for Azerbaijan and Georgia. A direct rail link is planned between Georgia and Iran.

Washington has an instinctive, ideological enmity to the Islamic Republic. Iran’s political and economic successes make the US’s acceptance of the new realities even more difficult and painful.

Muslimedia: July 1-15, 1998

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 9

Rabi' al-Awwal 07, 14191998-07-01

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