Congress is about to extend economic sanctions against Iran for five years. The goal is to pressure Iran to end alleged support for terrorism, efforts to build weapons of mass destruction, and opposition to the Arab-Israel peace process.
Taking the opposite position in the Washington Post of May 11, Gen. Brent Scowcroft called for ending sanctions as a gesture of support for Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's reform movement in the June 8 elections.
Both are wrong for one simple reason: Fiercely independent Iranians will reject any outside initiative intended to influence their internal politics.
Threatening them or wooing them is equally likely to disappoint and frustrate foreign bullies or lovers. That is the first lesson we should have learned from decades of dealing with Iran - from Richard Nixon's sweetness to Bill Clinton's harshness. The doctrine of the feared "foreign hand" that controls their nation is drilled deep into the minds of Iranians of all persuasions.
The second lesson is not to expect reciprocity for gestures or compliance with demands aimed at Tehran. Decades of sanctions and tough rhetoric have utterly failed to affect Iran's policies. Offers to buy carpets and pistachios produced no movement toward us. What we intend as a favor is often seen in Tehran as an overdue obligation. Threats, as President Carter learned, are dismissed as bluster.
A third lesson is more encouraging. Bargaining for rugs or contracts or policies in Tehran may be a long and difficult process, but it often ends with both sides reasonably satisfied. Patience, mutual respect, and keeping your own basic interests firmly in mind are the essential keys to eventual, if perhaps partial, success.
General Scowcroft, in my opinion, is right in his prescription if wrong in his rationale. Sanctions should end.
The Congress is wrong in both prescription and rationale. Congressional diplomacy toward Iran has denied business opportunities to American firms while foreign concerns - some benefiting from executive branch waivers of the sanctions - have signed lucrative contracts. According to the Financial Times of May 24, business groups that oppose sanctions policy have been trumped by "the powerful pro-Israel lobby," which is acting to cut off debate even before the Bush administration completes its review of sanctions policy.
It is strange that the US, facing a serious shortfall in energy production, should prevent its firms from helping develop oil and gas production in Iran, and block the most direct and economical route - through Iran - for energy from the Caspian Sea region. America's heavy demand for additional energy sources will be further restricted if Iraq, objecting to new UN sanctions, shuts down its export of 1.8 million barrels a day.
Serving America's energy needs is sufficient reason for lifting sanctions.
One might think that $2 for a gallon of gas would lead Congress and the administration to hold their noses while prudently filling the national tank.
The other reason for ending sanctions is strategic: Iran hasn't moved since the cold war. It still occupies important real estate. From a neutral perspective, Tehran seems to share common interests with Washington on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Russian influence in Central Asia. There is zero chance of dialogue, however, as long as we maintain sanctions. Without sanctions, chances are improved - but by no means guaranteed - that in time the two capitals can have productive exchanges.
Who knows? Some day terrorism, nukes, and Arab-Israel peace might even make it to the agenda.
Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service officer, was head of the Iran Desk in the State Department during the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor