The Iran Project

US-Iran Relations

By Kristin McHugh

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WALTER CRONKITE: Iran has been called the "Bermuda Triangle" of US foreign policy because four Washington administrations have gotten lost on the issue.

How President Bush navigates relations with Iran will depend on a delicate balance in the US—and Iran. Correspondent Kristin McHugh begins our report in Washington, DC.

(Sounds from Washington DC office)

KRISTIN MCHUGH: As President Bush takes up work, lobbyists and think tank analysts who advise the new administration are busy in offices near Dupont Circle, scanning the skies and oceans for any incoming political missiles that might hit the new administration.

(Sonar blips)

Iran is showing up on Washington's sonar screen more often these days. The US broke diplomatic relations in 1979 and has imposed a series of sanctions over the last 20 years… including the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996. Neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have been able to bring Iran back into the US sphere of influence. What should President Bush do? Well, there's no lack of advice.

JIM PHILLIPS: Iran is in a very volatile period.

MCHUGH: Jim Phillips is a Research Fellow on Middle Eastern Affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

JIM PHILLIPS: Those that support terrorism against the US, against the west, and their own people, still retain considerable power in the security bureaucracies and the foundations in the intelligence services.

MCHUGH: Most conservative Republicans oppose a thaw in US relations with Iran. They are joined by some Democrats, particularly those who strongly support Israel. Israel supported Iran during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980's and even sold weapons to the conservative mullahs. But today Israel denounces Iran because of its opposition to the Middle East peace process and for its support of Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. Ken Bricker is press secretary for the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.

KEN BRICKER: We believe that President Khatami is for real. Unfortunately, he's not in charge over there. The Council of Guardians, which is the conservative mullahs who are opposed to any relations with the US, they're the ones who are in charge.

MCHUGH: AIPAC backs the Clinton Administration criteria for normalizing relations with Iran. The US says Iran must support the Middle East peace process, end support for terrorism and stop developing weapons of mass destruction.

For their part, Iranian officials criticize the pro-Israel lobby's undue influence on US thinking. They say the US has no right to dictate Iran's foreign policy. And Mohammad Ali Abtahi, first secretary to Iran's president, flatly denies that his country is developing weapons of mass destruction.

MOHAMMAD ALI ABTAHI: Regardless of what America claims or says independently, we believe that all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons should be eradicated. Eliminated.

REESE ERLICH: So that means Iran is not developing such weapons?

MOHAMMAD ALI ABTAHI: Undoubtedly, that's what it means.

MCHUGH: Some in the US argue that economic interests should take precedence in US relations with Iran. For example, Republicans such as Congressman Bob Ney and Senator Arlen Specter want to end US sanctions. They are supported by national trade groups and big oil companies. Mike Stinson, a Senior Vice President with Conoco Oil in Houston, warns that the US will lose out by ignoring Iran's vast business potential.

MIKE STINSON: It would be a sad, sad thing if we stood by and watched European companies who want this desperately or Japanese companies who want this desperately to simply scoot in front of us and do yet another strategic deal with Iran.

MCHUGH: Conoco and other US oil companies are also worried about US backed plans to build a pipeline from the oil rich Caspian Sea to Turkey. Some oil companies would like to see it run through Iran, a route they argue is shorter and more practical. The ideological and economic splits over Iran policy are likely to continue in Washington for many months to come.

(Shouts from Iranian demonstrators)

Ruling circles back in Iran are also split about re-establishing relations with the US. Any major Iranian politician who openly advocates restoring diplomatic ties faces the wrath of militant conservatives.

(Shouts from Iranian demonstrators)

These Iranians demonstrating in Tehran may be chanting "death to America," but a recent poll by Iran's Culture Ministry shows 56 percent of Iranians want to restore normal diplomatic ties with the US. It remains to be seen if that popular opinion will translate into a changed policy.

Former President Jimmy Carter has a unique perspective on this issue. He broke diplomatic ties with Iran in 1979 and initiated sanctions. He says today, the situation has changed and it's time to move on.

JIMMY CARTER: I think the United States government should reach out to Iran with an effort to restore full diplomatic relations, full trade relations, obviously Iran would have to meet us halfway before definite steps are taken. But we should not wait until Iran takes the first step.

MCHUGH: Back in Washington the new president will have to confront the Iran debate, an issue that has frustrated four previous administrations. In August the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act will expire unless renewed by Congress. By then President Bush will have to decide whether to stay in the station or jump on board the train for a new Iran policy.

(Sound of Metro rail doors closing "Please stand clear of the doors. Thank you.")

For the Iran Project, I'm Kristin McHugh in Washington.

© 2001 by The Stanley Foundation
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