The Clinton administration has once again missed the mark when it comes to U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In a ground-breaking speech on March 17, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright announced that the United States was lifting the ban on the import into the United States of Iranian carpets, dried fruits, nuts, and caviar as part of an effort to restore diplomatic and commercial relations with Iran's clerical regime.
Ms. Albright noted that these latest measures were "a logical extension" of last year's relaxation of the ban on the sale of U.S. aircraft spare parts, food and medicine to Iran, and were "designed to show the millions of Iranian craftsmen, farmers and fishermen who work in these industries, and the Iranian people as a whole, that the United States bears them no ill will."
On the surface such efforts appear reasonable. But ultimately they amount to little more than appeasement of a regime that continues to prove its ruthless hostility toward America and toward U.S. interests in the Middle East, and that has left a trail of blood in its wake from Beirut to Dhahran and far beyond.
While Albright made a laudable effort to distinguish between the ruling clerics and the people of Iran, who bear America no ill will, the steps she announced will have no impact on ordinary Iranians. Instead, they will prop up certain commercial elites which support the regime, starting with the family of former Iranian president Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who have a virtual monopoly on the export of Iranian pistachios, a major export crop.
These latest moves are the fourth in a series of unilateral U.S. gestures of "good will" toward the Iranian regime over the past year.
Last December, the administration authorized the sale of upgrade kits for Boeing passenger aircraft to Iran, waiving a twenty year embargo on such sales. While small numbers of spare parts have been authorized for sale to Iran over the years on a case by case basis for air safety reasons, this was the first time any U.S. administration has allowed the sale of equipment that would allow Iran to upgrade or modernize its fleet. Iran's Revolutionary Guards regularly uses Boeing 747 cargo jets to ferry military supplies to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon for use against Israel. Thank you, Mr. Clinton.
Earlier last year, the administration lifted the ban on the sale of U.S.-origin food, medicines, and medical equipment to Iran. In a less-publicized move, the administration liberalized visa and travel restrictions on Iranian visitors, including government officials. This has allowed the Iranian government to expand its intelligence gathering, propaganda, and recruitment efforts in the United States. Thank you, Mr. Clinton.
So far, the Iranian government has yet to make a single gesture in response. U.S. diplomats are not welcome in Iran, and the Iranian regime periodically jams the Persian Service broadcasts of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
More significantly, the regime is expanding deployment of long-range Shahab-3 missiles against U.S. allies in the region. According to recent testimony by CIA Director George Tenet, Iran is also working hard to expand its arsenal of chemical, biological, and possibly nuclear weapons. The U.S. administration has failed to take any serious measures to cut off the technology pipeline to these programs from their biggest foreign suppliers, Communist China and the Russian Federation. Thank you, Mr. Clinton.
Secretary Albright acknowledged the regime's support for terrorism, its rampant abuse of human rights, and its determined efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. "Until these policies change, fully normal ties between our governments will not be possible and our principle sanctions will remain," she said. But she failed to provide a cogent explanation why the U.S. should be rewarding the regime for maintaining these policies - not once, but on four separate occasions over the past year.
Liberalizing trade with Iran amounts to a cash advance drawn against the hope of future good behavior by the clerical regime. The U.S. should not be dealing with ruthless regimes such as Iran's based on hope, but on clear standards of evidence and behavior.
Just recently, the Iranian government shipped extended range artillery rockets to Lebanon's Hezbollah. These 60-75 kilometer-range rockets give Hezbollah the ability to reach deep into Israeli territory for the first time, well beyond Israel's security zone in South Lebanon. Iran's actions demonstrate that no matter how many alleged "moderates" get elected to the Iranian parliament, Iran's security apparatus remains under the control of hard-liners, who are deeply hostile to the U.S. and to America's allies in the Middle East.
President Mohammad Khatami's public embrace of Lebanese Hezbollah leaders at meetings in Tehran last October shows that he fully endorses these hostile policies. And yet, the Clinton administration continues to praise and reward him as a "moderate."
These latest moves become all the more incomprehensible when set against the backdrop of the upcoming trial of 13 Jews from Shiraz, who were jailed last year on trumped up espionage charges.
There has been tremendous international pressure on Tehran to free the Jews, who include teenage boys and an 80-year synagogue cantor. Even France and Germany - Iran's biggest trading partners in Europe - have threatened to scale back trade if Tehran does not bend.
The administration's unilateral gestures of appeasement not only undercut the belated attempts by U.S. allies to pressure the regime to release the Jews: they actually encourage the hard-liners to hang tough. Thank you, Mr. Clinton.
But even this was not enough to please the growing lobby in the U.S. that favors renewed ties with Tehran.
Ms. Albright threew another sop to Iranian hard-liners - and their leftist supporters in the U.S. - Mrs. Albright commited a totally unprovoked assault on the memory of the former Shah of Iran. After apologizing for the U.S. involvement in hastening the downfall of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, Ms. Albright criticized previous U.S. administrations for giving "sustained backing" to the former Shah. "Although it did much to develop the country economically, the Shah's government also brutally repressed political dissent," she said.
Most historians agree, on the contrary, that it was the Shah's failure to brutally repress dissent that ultimately caused his downfall at the hands of Ayatollah Khomeini. After 37 years in power, the Shah's "dreaded SAVAK" stood accused by human rights organizations of having executed as many as 400 dissidents. During the first five years of the reign of the Ayatollahs, the clerical regime itself proudly admitted to butchering more than 10,000.
Last summer, pro-democracy students launched widescale demonstrations against the regime in more than 18 cities across Iran. Ultimately, their heroic efforts to bring about change were violently repressed by the regime. Spearheading the government crack-down was Iran's leading "moderate," President Khatami.
Since then, many students have sought political asylum in the United States, only to be turned away by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. I personally helped one of these students, whom I will call Rezapour, after he was granted political refugee status by the United Nations. After several months of efforts, Mr. Rezapour was refused entry to the United States without explanation by the INS. Mr. Rezapour must now return to Iran, where he faces certain imprisonment, or seek refuge in Europe where severe limits will be placed on his political freedoms. Thank you, Mr. Clinton.
Instead of finding new ways of appeasing a regime that wishes America no good, the United States should encourage democrats inside Iran to pursue their quest to end the dictatorship of a radical, anti-Western clergy. Instead of loosening trade with regime-backed monopolies, the U.S. would do better to provide political asylum and financial support to victims of clerical repression. Sadly, under Mr. Clinton, the United States is doing neither.
[Mr. Timmerman is a Contributing Editor of Reader's Digest and Executive Director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran]