WASHINGTON — The US denounces Iran as a sponsor of terrorism and has sought to isolate the Muslim rulers of the "rogue state." But there is another side to Tehran.
Iran is currently caring for the largest refugee population on earth, trying to mediate resolutions to a handful of regional conflicts, and backing forces in Afghanistan that are fighting the world's most oppressive Islamic regime.
A growing number of prominent US experts are citing these and other factors in urging President Clinton to adopt a more flexible alternative to what they consider a failed and risky United States policy of trying to isolate Iran.
The White House, however, is in no mood to listen.
Instead, the Clinton administration is stepping up its quest for multinational action to "contain" Iran in talks to which reluctant European allies have been invited this month in Washington.
European support will be crucial, should Clinton order military retaliation against Iran if FBI investigators uncover concrete proof of Iranian involvement in the bombing last June that killed 19 American troops in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
The second round of discussions to be held here is part of a new US bid to enlist European cooperation that began after a German court on April 10 implicated top Iranian leaders in the 1992 slayings of three Kurdish dissidents.
"We think that the best approach to dealing with Iran's misbehavior is concerted global pressure," asserts a senior administration official. "We are not naive enough to believe that everyone is going to be in lock-step with us. But we think there is a lot of room left for doing that."
Says he: "We are quite comfortable with ... containment."
But that comfort is not universally shared. Some Mideast experts warn that unless it relaxes relations with Iran, such as granting business deals on a case-by-case basis, the US could pay a heavy price in the future. It may include driving Tehran closer to Russia and China, encouraging its alleged nuclear arms program, and closing off US access through Iran to massive untapped oil supplies in Central Asia.
US taxpayers will also continue to pay a $40 billion annual bill to maintain a military force in the Persian Gulf that boosts domestic opposition to the region's despotic pro-Western rulers, critics say. They say the US and its European and Gulf allies should agree on an Iran policy.
Meanwhile, Clinton is hearing from members of Congress who contend US policy has not been forceful enough. They want the US to do more to stop Russia and China from selling military technologies to Iran. "We have to get tougher, not only with the Iranians, but with those who supply them," says Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas, chairman of a Senate subcommittee that oversees US policy toward the Middle East.
Senator Brownback also agrees with those who say that US military retaliation should be "highly considered" if FBI investigators uncover concrete proof of an Iranian role in the Dhahran bombing.
In defending current policy, US officials charge that Tehran's alleged sponsorship of terrorism and pursuit of nuclear weapons as well as its conventional arms buildup are major threats to the US and its allies, including the moderate Arab states of the oil-rich Gulf region.
They also say that conditions are hardly conducive to a policy shift, given the possibility of an Iranian hand in the Saudi blast. A Canadian court on April 5 cleared the deportation of a Saudi with links to Iran whom US and Saudi officials want to question about his alleged involvement in the attack.
Proof of an Iranian role could ignite a public clamor for military action that Clinton would find difficult to ignore.
Critics concede that Iranian complicity would rule out a US policy change. But they doubt hard evidence will be provided by Saudi Arabia, which US officials say has failed to fully cooperate with the FBI. Without such proof, critics say, Washington should reassess its strategy.
US policy "has been ineffectual and the attempt to coerce others into following America's lead has been a mistake," write Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, former national security advisers, in Foreign Affairs magazine.
Washington's approach to Iran is governed by a "dual containment" policy that calls for preventing it and Iraq from threatening their neighbors or the flow of Gulf oil. But the US has found itself alone in seeking Iran's isolation. In 1995, Clinton declared a unilateral US trade embargo. The following year he signed a bill mandating US sanctions against foreign firms investing in Iran's oil industry.
US policy has had little impact, say critics. Iran has managed to accumulate record hard-currency reserves and boost oil production. While the German court ruling prompted the European Union to end its policy of "critical dialogue" with Iran, trade ties are unaffected.
James Bill, an Iranian expert at William and Mary College, in Williamsburg, Va., says the US also needs to take account of Iran's care for 2.5 million Afghan and Kurdish refugees.
But US officials say such actions are rooted in self-interest. "There is a strong consensus [among most Mideast governments]... that this Iranian government is a long-term threat to stability," says the senior official. "The US should be active in seeking to contain the Iran threat."