Commentary: To Hurt The Mullahs, End Sanctions

The U.S. has used the blunt instrument of unilateral sanctions to deal with Iran--assuming that by depriving the nation of U.S. technology and capital and by sanctioning foreign companies who deal with Tehran, Uncle Sam can make the regime's hotheads think twice, say, about buying long-range missiles from North Korea.

But there's a better way to undercut Iran's tired revolutionaries. Instead of tightening sanctions, Washington should consider removing them. That would damage the religious conservatives who hold most of the power, while aiding Iranians who want closer ties to the West. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other leaders use America-bashing "to hide their incompetence," says one Iranian businessman. "Take it away, and they have nothing."

Ibrahim Yazdi, a former foreign minister who heads the opposition Freedom Movement of Iran, says U.S. policy won't topple the regime or persuade it to ease up. Proposals such as that of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to authorize $20 million to destabilize Iran mainly undercut moderates, says Yazdi.

Anti-American slogans still bedeck Tehran, but the days when Iran was trying to export its revolution are long gone. And it's simply wrong to put Iran in the same "rogue nation" class as Libya or Iraq. Those tortured nations are run by madmen.

Instead, America's relations with Iran should be modeled on its China policy. Trade should be allowed in the interest of promoting economic and political liberalization.

U.S. sanctions are also bad for U.S. business now and for the long-term American position in this critical region. As Conoco CEO Archie W. Dunham recently told Energy Secretary Federico F. Pena, Iran is not waiting until the U.S. changes its policies to make oil and gas deals. After the Clinton Administration nixed Conoco's $1 billion plan to develop an offshore oil field, France's Total jumped in and now pumps 120,000 barrels a day from the fields.

Building bridges between Iran and the U.S. won't be easy. Ever since students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and seized 52 hostages, Iran has held a special place in the American psyche. Similarly, having reinstalled the Shah in a 1953 CIA-engineered coup and keeping him in power, Washington is seen as a foe of Iranian independence.

There have been small signs of thawing in Washington. Leading members of the U.S. foreign policy Establishment are now saying publicly that the anti-Iran policy is counterproductive. Following President Mohammed Khatami's landslide victory a month after that, Washington sent quiet messages to him through Saudi envoys. And in August, the State Dept. put Tehran's fiercest opposition--the Mujahedin Khalq Organization--on its terrorist watch list.

"This whole story between the U.S. and Iran has to end. The Americans have to realize that their policies are simplistic and counterproductive," says a Western ambassador in Tehran. "And the day there's a change in behavior, there'll be a McDonald's on every street corner in Tehran." That probably won't happen anytime soon. But the moment to start changing old habits has arrived.

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