US pressured to improve ties with Iran

A Washington group urges lifting sanctions against Tehran to spur reformist elements.

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Pressure is building on the Bush administration to ease its hard-line stance toward Iran after the reelection of reformist President Mohammad Khatami.

A number of scholars and foreign-policy experts - both Democrat and Republican - believe the US should lift some of the sanctions against Iran as a way of reaching out to reform-minded elements in the country.

While any rapprochement between Washington and Tehran is unlikely - including the lifting of sanctions - Mr. Khatami's reelection is at least fueling a debate over whether the US should recalibrate its approach toward the Mideast nation. "The current strategy [of sanctions] has outlived whatever usefulness it had, and we need a new one," says Gen. Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to President Ford and the first President Bush.

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Mr. Scowcroft co-chairs a policy-review effort on Iran by the Atlantic Council, a foreign-policy group here. The organization is recommending that the US unilaterally end a few sanctions that work against US interests and abolish some irritants to Iran.

Current law imposes a broad array of sanctions on both American and overseas firms that do business with Iran, including with its oil firms. The legislation expires in early August. In addition, a number of executive orders issued by past presidents also impose sanctions. The intent of the sanctions has been to force Iran to end its support for terrorism and to moderate its behavior in the international community.

"A revolution is taking place in Iran. The people are demanding change," Scowcroft said at the unveiling of the policy review Friday. And the US cannot afford to remain "frozen in hostility," but must reach out to them.

Yet even as this case is being made, Congress is poised to renew sanctions for another five years. Renewing the law "is almost a done deal," admits former congressman Lee Hamilton, another co-chair of the policy-review effort.

Senate sponsors Charles E. Schumer (D) of New York and Gordon Smith (R) of Oregon say they have a veto-proof 74 votes. Both argue that sanctions have been successful. They say they've prevented Iran from attracting most of the foreign investment it has sought for its oil fields, and have crimped Iran's ability to bankroll terrorist activities and missile and nuclear programs.

Still, waiver provisions exist in the sanction law, and it is possible that the president could exercise them to reduce the severity of the economic strictures. What Scowcroft, Hamilton, and their colleagues recommend is that Washington carefully identify and end a few sanctions that primarily harm US interests, such as those that prevent domestic firms from helping Iran develop its oil fields. Foreign firms are doing it anyway, they say, and the principal practical effect is that US businesses are losing revenue.

At the least, ending such a sanction may encourage Iranians who seek reform. "There is tremendous ferment" among the people of Iran in terms of the direction in which Iran should go, says Roscoe Suddarth, former head of the Middle East Institute, a think tank here.

If there were a response from the hard-line cleric-dominated government, which has more power in Iran than Khatami, "then we may be able to move to government-to-government relations," says James Schlesinger, also a co-chair, who held cabinet positions under Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter.

The policy review doesn't condone Iran's sponsorship of international terrorism and its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Nonetheless, the three co-chairs say, reaching out to Iran at this time is necessary, in part because of its oil reserves, its importance in the Islamic world, and US interest in seeing that Iran doesn't align with Russia and China.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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