White House wrestles with Iran crisis. Critics say secret US arms deal won't win friends and influence Tehran
It is not President Reagan's broad objective in Iran that is drawing fire but the methods of achieving it. Diplomatic experts give the President credit for publicly recognizing the strategic importance of Iran and seeking to break the ice of hostility that has surrounded US-Iranian relations ever since the Islamic fundamentalists came to power in Tehran. For too long, say knowledgeable observers, the United States has scorned Iran's revolutionary regime and wishfully hoped it would turn out to be a temporary phenomenon.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
``Iran cannot be treated as a pariah,'' says William Quandt, a Mideast specialist at the Brookings Institution. ``Iran must be pleased that the US is ready for a better relationship. That was long overdue.''
But, after a massive public relations effort to defend its secret talks with Tehran over an 18-month period, the White House has failed to convince members of Congress or the diplomatic community that the tactics it employed measured up to the objective. It is widely charged that the White House diplomatic overture was conducted amateurishly and without sufficient understanding of Iranian conditions and psychology.
Diplomats with experience in the Middle East say Mr. Reagan and his aides exercised poor judgment in what is now admitted to have been a largely Central Intelligence Agency operation. They make these points:
It does not make sense for the United States, as it adjusts its policy toward Iran, to do it through Israel. What, in fact, was Israel's role? According to press reports, the Israelis provided substantial quantities of arms to Iran in the midst of the covert talks, appearing to belie the administration claim that the shipment of US arms was ``miniscule.''
Experts say the US could have approached any number of countries - Algeria, Turkey, Pakistan - to help open the channels of communication with Iran. By using Israel, Washington has strained its relations with the moderate Arab states and risked undermining its long-term strategic influence in the region.
``Using Israel is a great mistake,'' says Hermann Eilts, former ambassador to Egypt. ``The Iranian government is strongly anti-Israeli and the belief that a few people willing to talk to Israel will change Iran's objective is short-sighted.''
Making a ``downpayment'' in arms shipments is not the best way to begin a dialogue with an ostensibly hostile state. The President and his close aides argue that Henry Kissinger used secret methods when he opened the door to communist China. But the US did not provide Peking with weapons.
In the case of Iran, say diplomatic experts, the US can enhance its credibility best by ``accepting'' the Iranian revolution. The fact that the Reagan administration still has a rhetorical stance suggesting that Iran is ``beyond the pale'' of civilized nations appears to contradict the effort to lay the ground for better ties. Dealing in arms transactions does not enhance US credibility, say experts.
The President's denial to the contrary, it still appears the US made an ``arms for hostages'' deal with Iran. Suspicion lingers that it was primarily the hostage question that drove the secret mission of former National Security Advisor Robert C. McFarlane.