EARLY in his presidency, Bill Clinton thrilled Boeing employees with a promise to help America's largest exporter find more business. It's another Clinton promise in trouble, having clashed squarely with the administration's tough new policy toward Iran.
Mr. Clinton's dilemma has been catalyzed by a significant export deal pending between Boeing and Iran. Iran wishes immediately to purchase 20 Boeing 737 aircraft, and this initial sale will help lock-in Iranian purchases of additional Boeing aircraft. Boeing believes that by the end if the decade, Iran could acquire $6.5 billion worth of planes and spares. That translates into tens of thousands of high-paying jobs at Boing and key subcontractors such as General Electric. But doing business with Iran is a
politically loaded proposition. By contrast, bashing Iran had been easy for the Clinton administration in recent months. Few in the media or the foreign-policy establishment have questioned the increasingly shrill condemnations of Iran as an incorrigible "outlaw state."
When key National Security Council adviser Martin Indyk outlined a "dual containment" policy toward Iran and Iraq in a late May speech to the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, observers and reporters alike fairly assumed that the administration was seeking a full-scale diplomatic and economic isolation of Iran.
United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher has recommended that the administration block the Boeing sale to Iran as part of his crusade to pressure Iran for its alleged support of "terrorism," pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process.
The arguments against the Boeing sale begin with concerns that Iran might gain "dual-use technology" to strengthen its presumed military buildup. At the beginning of this month, 140 Congress members, led by rookie Rep. Peter Deutsch (D) of Florida, urged the president to reject the sale. "It is hypocritical," they declared, "to even consider the sale of these aircraft, which have the capacity for dual use, when we know that Iran poses a substantial danger to worldwide security." This dual-use charge ring s hollow.
First, Iran's regionally modest military spending levels hardly threaten anyone. Even Jordan's King Hussein, who backed Iraq against Iran for far too long, recently observed that "obviously, Iran is not a threat to the US."
More to the point, Iran already has Boeing 737s in its fleet. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati travels around the world in a 737.
Secretary Christopher has also claimed that selling the small 737s would increase Iran's lift capacity to move aggressive infantry. Well, it "might" in an extremely hypothetical Army War College or National Defense University war game. But the US Navy cruiser Vincennes in 1988 has already demonstrated how easy it is to shoot down Iranian airliners.
Ironically, the real issue in this Boeing sale has nothing to do with whether the airplanes make any real contribution to Iran's military prowess. Instead, the issue is the credibility of the Clinton administration's diplomatic effort to persuade Western leaders to reduce dramatically their trade with Iran. Germany, Japan, Italy, France, and Great Britain each enjoy between $1 billion and $5 billion in annual sales to Iran.
A US go-ahead to Boeing might undermine efforts to obtain multilateral economic sanctions against Iran. But even if the administration's Iran spokesmen come up with real evidence to back up their rhetorical charges against Iran, our Western allies are extremely unlikely to agree to anything more than narrowly defined bans on "dual use" exports to Iran.
In any case, backers of the Boeing sale correctly reason that Europe's Airbus and Fokker airline industries will happily meet Iran's large civilian airline needs, should the US government tie Boeing's hands. Both have made large civilian airplane sales to Iran in recent years, and none of the involved European governments share the "evil empire" image of Iran so prevalent in the US. Japan has even been pushing for greater - not less - economic cooperation with Iran, arguing that such assistance will furt her buttress Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani's critically-needed reform efforts.
Should the Clinton administration decide to block the Boeing deal with Iran, the US, not Iran, will find itself isolated and defeated.