Engage secular Iran

By

As the "rent-a-crowds" of the clerical regime in Tehran wind down the celebrations of the 22nd anniversary of the Islamic Republic by chanting their customary "Death to America," US policymakers are grappling with a continuing problem: how to deal with Iran.

Since radicals took over the US Embassy in November 1979, America's Iran policy has moved from hostility to appeasement to dual containment to apologizing to the hostage-takers for Washington's "past mistakes."

The United States should not invest its diplomatic and political energies on apologizing for "mistakes" in exchange for normalization of relations with Tehran. Instead, Washington must lend its moral support to Iran's nascent reform movement, much like we did with dissident movements in the Soviet bloc.

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The historic election of 1997, in which Iranians voted for a substantially more moderate government, was a clear signal to the clerical establishment that Iranians want the freedom to live and prosper under secular rule and want an end to their country's international isolation. A policy of engagement with those forces inside Iran whose ultimate goal is to restore secularism and democracy would serve both countries' long-term interests.

Within Iran, the youths who make up a majority of the population, journalists of reformist newspapers, junior clerics who question the legitimacy of clerical rule, and women are at the forefront of defying the ruling theocrats. They are Washington's natural allies. President Bush should use the coming Iranian New Year (March 20) to outline his vision of engagement and collaboration between these groups and America. A secular and democratic Iran would once again be a partner with America, united by their many shared geopolitical interests in the region.

First, the containment of Saddam Hussein's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and his menacing policy toward oil-rich Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are of paramount importance.

Second, Afghanistan's Taliban regime also must be contained, because it threatens to spread its brand of radical Islam into the energy-rich former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

Third, Pakistan's increasingly radical Islamic movement, which is close to declaring itself an Islamic state, must be contained in the combustible Southeast Asia nuclear zone.

Fourth, Iran can become a stable corridor for the transport of Caspian oil and gas to international markets. The US's multiple pipeline policy would be enhanced by including Iran.

Fifth, by working together, Iran and America can enhance the security of the Persian Gulf and its massive oil reserves.

Sixth, with Iran as a partner, it would be easier to work with Washington's allies - Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia - to thwart any lingering Russian expansionist tendencies.

Finally, a secular and democratic Iran can be a moderating force in the tense Arab-Israeli environment. Indeed, a free and democratic Iran would put an immediate end to the fundamental problems Washington has with Iran: state-sponsorship of terrorism, building weapons of mass destruction, and a holier-than-thou policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Beyond geopolitical considerations, Mr. Bush should indicate to the Iranian people that the US is ready to be Iran's partner in prosperity. Both sides would have much to gain.

Economic partnership with America would enable Iran to reverse the debilitating effects of the hardships suffered by most Iranians. American oil companies once again would have an opportunity to participate in the development of Iran's vast oil and gas reserves. Contracts would be negotiated with transparency, under stable fiscal and legal regimes, and with competitive rates of return. Iran's more that 70 million people would once again constitute a market for American goods and services.

In short, economic engagement can lay the foundation for a return to normalcy in US-Iran relations, not apologies.

Fariborz Ghadar is director of the Center for Global Business Studies in Penn State's Smeal College of Business Administration. S. Rob Sobhani is president of Caspian Energy Consulting and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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