A Surprising Advocate of Engagement with Iran

by Jim Lobe

While Majority Leader McConnell tries to delay the inevitable and AIPAC’s current favorite cat’s paw, Ben Cardin, tries to persuade half a dozen wobbly Democrats to join his effort to “strengthen” (read “sabotage”) the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA) through his poison-pill-filled “Iran Policy Oversight Act of 2015,” I’ve been going through some old clippings. (And, yes, I still clip newspapers, much to the amusement of my younger colleagues.) One actually surprised me.

Here’s an excerpt:

It is in the interest of everyone in the West to try to guide Islamic countries toward modern, peaceful coexistence with their neighbors. It was argued on this page last week by a former CIA specialist that the best way to do that in Iran is to loosen sanctions so that American businesses can reenter the country, adding a liberalizing Western presence. Clearly the Iranian people, having had their fill of the mullahs, now want liberalizing influences from wherever they can get them.

…The task of the West is to find ways to reinforce the preferences that the Iranian people have now so clearly stated. If it can do that, it will be helping not only the Iranians but the cause of peace in Western Asia and the Persian Gulf region.

Sounds like something The New York Times would write today. Or perhaps something the Times would have published two years ago after the election of Hassan Rouhani, who, contrary to most Iran observers here, emerged from a pack of more hard-line candidates believed to be favored by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to win the presidency. In fact, the writers of the editorial quoted above could have been addressing the implications of Rouhani’s unexpected victory.

Ayatollah Khameini is no liberal… But even in a carefully controlled election in which the four candidates were selected by the ruling elite, Iranians found themselves with a choice and they used it to deliver a blow at the power elite. Give the ayatollahs credit for leaving themselves open to that.

Actually, the above words were published by the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal on May 27, 1997, just after the surprise election of Mohammed Khatami. True, Rouhani is much closer to the “power elite” than Khatami ever was during his presidency. But the Journal’s argument for rapprochement with Iran—which rested primarily on its “geopolitical importance”—applies with at least as much force today as it did 18 years ago, what with the ongoing turmoil in the region, the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and the impending lifting of multilateral sanctions against Iran under the JCPOA. (Remember that the Cardin bill and the latest version of the Kirk-Menendez bill that Republicans will no doubt be pushing again shortly would be unilateral in its likely effect.)

Here’s how the editorial went on (with my emphases added):

The Clinton administration responded reservedly to the Iranian results. It said in effect that it is willing to talk with a representative of the government about the activities of Iran that trouble the U.S. The four principal ones are Iranian support of terrorist groups, suspected Iranian development of weapons of mass destruction, violations of human rights inside and outside Iran and a disruptive approach toward the Middle East peace process.

That’s a heavy burden of charges and clearly not even a smiling President Khatami, with his love of table tennis and the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, is likely to jeopardize his standing with the still-powerful religious tyranny by capitulating to American demands. But the U.S. is working with Canada and its European allies rather belatedly to try to thresh out a more coherent and cooperative foreign policy toward Iran. A less confrontational approach may well be formulated for when Mr. Khatami assumes office in August.

A whole string of American foreign policy specialists have checked in recently with articles saying that the U.S. policy of unilateral economic sanctions against Iran has been a failure. The sanctions have been so porous that it can’t even be claimed with any certainty that the economic troubles that helped produce last Saturday’s outcome were in any way attributable to them. The ayatollahs and mullahs undoubtedly would have found ways to wreck the economy in the absence of U.S. pressure, despite the country’s oil earnings.

Another point on which there is a rising awareness in Europe and the U.S. is Iran’s geopolitical importance. With the collapse of the Soviet Union a vast region of the world, the trans-Caucasus and Central Asia, has turned towards the outside world, seeking to loosen ties with Moscow. Some of the richest regions, such as oil-rich Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and mineral-rich Uzbekistan, are traditionally Moslem and will probably gravitate toward Islam now that they have thrown off Communism’s official atheism. The Islamic Taliban has just chased the last Russian surrogates out of Afghanistan, finally unifying the country after what seemed like an endless war. Pakistan is now in firmer hands. Turkey has been drifting toward Islam.

Of course, that last-quoted paragraph just oozes irony, but the larger point is the Journal’s appreciation for a) the more-liberal aspirations of Iran’s younger generation; b) the futility of unilateral sanctions; c) Iran’s geopolitical importance in a time of turmoil and transition; and d) the desirability of U.S. business and diplomatic engagement as part of a liberalization process.

The Journal’s editorial board would no doubt raise a number of factors that argue against the policy that they advocated 18 years ago, including Khatami’s apparent inability to rein in hardliners, Tehran’s continuing support of “terrorist” groups and the Assad regime, Iran’s nuclear program (however limited it may be by the JCPOA),radical changes in the geopolitical chessboard, and the aggressive and provocative anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism, if not anti-Semitism, of Ahmadinejad’s presidency. But, frankly, I find the logic of the Journal‘s arguments of 18 years ago pretty compelling under the current circumstances.

UPDATE: I just checked. Rupert Murdoch bought the Journal in 2007.)

Photo: Mohammad Khatami meets the press

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.


One Comment

Comments are closed.