Behind America's Sudden Overture To Iran

When Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright made a surprise overture to Iran on June 17, she had another Mideast nation on her mind as well--Iraq. By reaching out to Iran's moderate President, Mohammad Khatami, the U.S. aims to reshape the region's balance of power with a policy based on that ancient Arab axiom: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

It's no coincidence that the Clinton Administration is attempting to normalize relations with Tehran at a time when U.S. officials fear that the U.N. will lift sanctions on Iraq by yearend, something Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has sought for seven years. Faced with the prospect of an unconstrained Iraq, the U.S. is returning to its old policy of pitting the two nations against one another. The counterweight strategy got a boost on June 23 when President Clinton vetoed legislation imposing sanctions on governments or businesses that supply missile technology to Iran.

TEST OF GOOD WILL. Although Iranian hard-liners will resist dealing with the "Great Satan," American officials are gambling that they can do business with Khatami and keep Saddam in check. An immediate test will be Iran's cooperation in stanching Iraqi oil smuggling. "There are things Iran could do to help with containment of Iraq," says a top U.S. foreign policy official. "They could do those early on as a demonstration of their seriousness."

The earlier, the better for the Administration. While there is new evidence that Saddam equipped missiles with deadly nerve gas before the 1991 gulf war, America's prospects for keeping the squeeze on Baghdad is still shaky. Pressure from France and Russia to lift sanctions will grow in October when a U.N. inspectors' report may conclude that its work dismantling Baghdad's secret weapons is done.

Of course, Saddam may again prove to be his own worst enemy by defying inspectors' demands and handing the U.S. an excuse to press for continued sanctions. But U.S. officials say Clinton and his foreign policy team have no interest in another military confrontation. In May, six months after the last showdown, the Pentagon reduced by half its massive buildup in the Persian Gulf. "Military involvement is a dwindling option," agrees Middle East expert Amatzia Baram of Haifa University. That makes the outreach to Tehran even more important.

The prospect that 20 years of U.S.-Iranian estrangement may come to an end is good news to American business. Corporate lobbyists have been pressing for a policy shift since the spring, when the Administration averted a conflict with Europe by waiving sanctions on foreign companies doing business with Tehran. But now, U.S. companies want Clinton to go further and lift an executive order barring U.S. companies from Iran. The order "leaves the U.S. out of the picture," gripes Frank Kittredge, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, an antisanctions group that represents such U.S. giants as General Electric, Citibank, Procter & Gamble, and Conoco.

The White House won't go that far as long as Iran supports terrorism and is trying to acquire nuclear weapons. But Clinton may make a small gesture to thank moderate mullahs for positive steps, such as peace efforts in Afghanistan and a war on drugs at home. U.S. officials concede that even a tiny step toward Tehran could be met with a swift rebuff. Still, the thought of a Saddam without sanctions makes the possibility of an international embarrassment worth the risk.

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