The Purpose Behind the Policies
Recent statements by Iranian president Mohammad Khatami have ignited a serious debate about the nature of U.S. policy toward Iran. Why has the United States allowed its objections to Iranian foreign policy prevent a reconciliation between our two countries when other erstwhile enemies, such as Vietnam, have been let back into our good graces?
U.S. policy toward Iran raises broader issues about foreign policy in the 1990s. What sort of conduct do we expect of our allies? What is our policy toward terrorists and nations that may support terrorism abroad? What is our policy regarding nations that may be developing weapons of mass destruction, or may help other nations do so? Finally, can other sovereign nations pursue independent foreign policies without incurring our displeasure?
These questions relate to the standards by which the United States currently justifies its policy of dual containment of Iraq and Iran. That means that whatever Iranian leaders are saying, Iran only differs from Iraq in U.S. eyes in that Iran doesn't have U.N. inspectors roving around its country. The United States maintains a complete embargo on Iranian goods, and American firms are not allowed to do business there.
If Iran and the United States were the only two countries in the world, our policy might be acceptable. As it is, the inconsistencies in our policy have left allies and non-allies equally baffled. The purpose of foreign policy statements should not be to daze and confuse, but to explicate and make clear. By that standard alone, our policy today is a failure.
Speaking of standards, those being applied to Iran demand close scrutiny. Take the charge that Iran is working on weapons of mass destruction, for example. In Iraq and Libya, the United States has used air strikes, trade embargoes, and other political and economic pressures to make producers of such weapons into international pariahs. In the case of Israel, India, Pakistan, Brazil, and Argentina, the United States has done nothing. And in the case of Korea, the United States negotiated an end to development by agreeing to a positive trade of peaceful reactors for inspections. Why do some countries qualify for good treatment while others do not?
The standard for support of terrorist acts is even more dubious. Terrorist action is by its very nature an individual choice. Weapons and bomb-making equipment are as readily available in the Middle East as they are in the United States. Charges that Iran has specifically supported terrorism often boils down to a list of supposed "links" to terrorists, whether ten years ago with the Hezbollah, or two years ago with the Kobi Towers bombers. Meanwhile, Syria has found itself in good graces with the United States for nearly a decade now, in spite of its reputed terrorist training centers.
The terrorism-support standard being used against Iran is particularly odious because it effectively puts terrorists in control of U.S. foreign policy: A single terrorist with an interest in keeping Iran isolated from the West can prevent a U.S.-Iran rapprochement with a single act of violence. Thus, when the State Department claims that we will judge nations by their actions, it might have been more accurate to say that the United States will judge other nations by the actions of third-party criminals.
Finally, the claim that Iran's position on Middle East peace talks - that Iran is opposed -prevents normalized relations is an insult to all nations in the Middle East. Are we promising to cut off relations with all countries that take different policy positions than we do? Certainly not, yet that is the stated standard in the case of Iran. It is exactly the sort of irrational position that worsens U.S. relations with all countries and peoples in the region.
Like perhaps no other country, Iran demonstrates that the United States has no broad vision for how countries should behave in the post-Cold War world. By holding Iran to politically bankrupt standards of conduct, we have not only hurt relations with Iran, but with all countries who look to America for leadership abroad. The longer America holds onto its outdated policies, the more aggravated our position in the Middle East will become.