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Grain as Litmus Test

February 5, 1999



When Iran asked the US last month to authorize American exporters to sell it $500 million worth of grain and sugar, it put Washington's words to the test.

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In 1998 the Clinton administration began a cautious change of its "double containment" policy of tough sanctions against Iran and Iraq. It kept a tight boycott on Iraq, but began to explore overtures from Iran's then new, more moderate Khatami government.

So-called wrestling diplomacy followed. That sport, which has a long tradition in Iran, became a kind of stalking horse for cultural and people-to-people contacts, which were then supposed to permit discussion of political differences.

Now, with Iran's request for the wheat, rice, soybean, corn, and sugar sale, 15 senators and 17 House members from farm states have joined 10 US commercial associations to ask for action to match words.

They have carefully couched their request in terms of a one-time exception to the sanctions policy. The White House and State and Treasury Departments are considering a license for the sales.

The answer ought to be yes.

Washington isn't going to squeeze Iran into foregoing development of nuclear missiles by withholding food. US farmers, facing diminishing exports to nations hit by the Asia-Russia-Brazil economic downturns, need customers. A big majority of the Iranian population obviously wants improved relations with the US. Pressed by isolationist clerical opponents, the Khatami government needs proof that its overtures are paying off.

That's more than enough reason to take this modest step promptly.