There is quite a bit of speculation that in his second term President Clinton may attempt a new approach to Iran.
Robert Pelletreau, the State Department's top Middle Eastern expert, hinted as much a few months ago, and there are rumors that secret probes, maybe even meetings, might be under way in an exotic trysting place far from prying eyes and listening ears. The Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based discussion group that counts many former and present members of the foreign policy establishment among its members, is looking at the effectiveness of the sanctions the United States has imposed on Iran for its uncivilized international behavior.
Don't act in haste
The Clinton administration should not be hasty in considering lifting the sanctions. The best-remembered and horrendously humiliating previous overture came during the Reagan administration, when White House aide Oliver North, National Security Adviser Robert (Bud) McFarlane, and other members of the gang-that-couldn't-think-straight tried to woo the Iranian regime in Tehran with a cake and a Bible. There has been no movement in US-Iran relations since that debacle, and the Clinton administration apparently would like to get something going.
Sanctions vs. sweet talk
True, United States sanctions have been ineffective in pressuring the Iranian regime to become a more agreeable member of the international community. But no more persuasive has been the sweet talk of those European nations hungry to do business with Iran. So far neither stick nor carrot have worked.
The mullahs who have run Iran for the past 18 years remain intransigent in the prosecution of their Islamic revolution, mischievous, and sometimes deadly in their international activities. There is no doubt that they have ordered hit men into action against a string of their opponents who have sought refuge in foreign lands. The regime is particularly vengeful against the opposition Mujahideen operating from Western Europe.
The Tehran regime remains publicly unapologetic for its monstrous death threat to novelist Salman Rushdie, whose writings offended them.
And the US charges, with a fair amount of good reason, that much of the international terrorism undertaken by Islamic extremists has its roots in, or at least gets a good deal of support from, Iran.
It is Iran's capacity to foment such international terrorism, along with its flagrant disregard for human rights at home, that is at present more troubling than its military buildup. It has bought high-performance jet warplanes from Russia, missiles from North Korea, and has been busy building a navy, including some submarines from China. But the navy is primarily made up of patrol boats and is no match for American naval and air power.
There are persistent rumors that Iran is seeking to build a nuclear bomb, but intelligence sources say such a breakthrough is not imminent. More ominous are reports that China is supplying Iran with biological warfare weaponry.
If Iran is no strategic threat to the US, it is menace enough that the US should think carefully before relaxing sanctions.
In practical terms, sanctions are usually ineffective. But they do send a message to an unruly regime that it is being watched. They may be a deterrent to further bad behavior.
Gradual lifting is good test
When sanctions are already in place, their lifting should be a reward for evidence of more agreeable behavior on the part of the offensive regime. Gradual lifting is a good test of a regime's sincerity about reform. In return for a partial lifting, a regime can make some good-faith efforts to improve its relationship with the nation doing the boycotting. This need not be trumpeted with fanfare and loss of face; it can be arranged discreetly and diplomatically.
If the Clinton administration is contemplating easing its sanctions against Iran, gradualism is the way to go. Iran should not be rewarded by the US until it has proved it is putting its meddlesome, and sometimes murderous, past behind it.
* John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.