US vs. (Iran vs. Israel)

An opinion piece on the opposite page helps explain a battle in Washington that pits against each other the two "I" giants of the Middle East: Israel and Iran.

These two nations are giants in both military and economic terms, and they foresee a rivalry for regional dominance well into the 21st century. That's one reason why Israel's supporters are putting a squeeze on Congress to renew US economic sanctions against Iran - and additional sanctions against European companies and others that do business with Iran. The sanctions expire Aug. 8.

The sanctions have failed to do great damage to Iran's economy or end its 22-year-long anti-American stance. Nor have they ended Iran's alleged support for Islamic fighters who kill Israelis. And they irk US allies in Europe to no end.

But the sanctions do send a moral "feel good" signal of disapproval, especially toward Iran's development of a missile system and perhaps a nuclear weapon.

President Bush, who brings a Kissinger-like realpolitik to foreign policy, might want to extend the sanctions for only a couple of years, as a way to ease out of them. His rationale may be that they aren't working. His aides are wary of economic sanctions as a foreign policy tool.

And he may want Iran's cooperation on lowering oil prices and on efforts to bring Caspian Sea oil to market, as well as strategic help in power plays over Central Asia. Ending the sanctions might send a message over the heads of Iran's battling clerics to Iranians. Almost two-thirds of them are under 25 and eager for reform.

While Mr. Bush strongly supports Israel, as most Americans do, he'll need to weigh that stance against his desire to pursue direct US interests. He, and leaders of Congress, should lay out this dilemma for more public debate. Americans, like Israelis, feel the effects of Islamic terrorist attacks, but also higher fuel prices. Bush and Congress need to treat Americans as participants in this critical decision.

Iran, like China, poses problems for the US. Both are potential long-term threats as well as potential peaceful democracies. (Iran's June 8 election could boost reformers.)

Sometimes, honey works better than vinegar to win friends and influence nations.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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