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Opportunities for Change in Iran


by Kenneth R. Timmerman

Director, the Middle East Data Project, Inc.; Publisher,The Iran Brief.

Copyright © 1995, Middle East Data Project,Inc.


A Nonproliferation Policy ForumPaper
Presented before
The Honorable John McCain, U.S.Senator (AZ)
The Honorable Dianne Feinstein,U.S. Senator (CA)
May 1, 1995
U.S. Capitol, RoomSC-5
Washington, DC


Reprinted in Fighting Proliferation: New Concerns forthe Nineties, Henry Sokolski (editor), Air Force UniversityPress, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, Sept. 1996.


The litany of Iran's misdeeds has been spelled out in detail bySecretary of State Christopher and other U.S. officials in publicspeeches, articles, and discussions with foreign leaders. Iran'ssupport for international terrorism, its self-avowed goal ofobstructing the Arab-Israeli peace process, its nuclear weaponsprogram, its subversion of neighboring regimes, and its grotesqueviolation of human rights are not a subject of dispute. Clearly wehave a regime in Tehran which is inimical to the United States andtoward U.S. interests around the world.

What is in dispute is what we can do about it.

Simply put, we have two basic policy options, each with its ownmultitude of variants. Either we take an activist's approach, andseek a change of regime in Tehran; or we take the accomodationist'sapproach, and try to work out some modus vivendi with the rulingclerics. There is no middle ground between these two positions; and Ibelieve that is one of the fundamental errors of dual containment,which otherwise represents a positive advance in U.S. policy.

There is much to be said for going forward with caution. TheUnited States has been burned before in its dealings with Tehran;and, increasingly, there are clear signs that the regime is introuble. One could argue that by waiting, and standing off, the U.S.could reap the fruits of the activist's approach without everexposing itself to the dangers. The regime could very well fall ofits own.

While this is a very tempting proposition, it is simply too goodto be true. After sixteen years of revolution, Tehran's leaders arestill obsessed with the United States. If things get worse, and theyfeel their regime begin to totter, they will lash out against theU.S. as the cause of their demise, regardless of whether the U.S. isinvolved or not. In the eyes of the ruling clerics, the U.S. isalready seeking to undermine their regime, and has been for the pastsixteen years. We can protest our innocence all we like: but toRafsanjani, Khamene'i, and their colleagues, we are the enemy, and weare directly responsible for all their ills.

Just two weeks ago, during a state visit to India, the "moderate"Hashemi-Rafsanjani drummed this point home once again in a speech to10,000 Indian Shiite Muslims. "Just as you have fought againstBritish imperialism," he said, "we have also been battling againstAmerican imperialism.".

So obsessed are the Iranians with the United States that not onlydo they continue to celebrate, every year on Nov. 4, the seizure ofthe U.S. embassy in Tehran, but they also celebrate, on April 9, thebreaking-off of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

This year on April 9, deputy Parliament speaker Hassan Ruhani, whois also Ayatollah Khamene'i's personal representative on the SupremeCouncil for National Security, ridiculed the U.S. because it was"desperate" to open negotiations with Tehran. "The Americans tell theworld that Iran is a dangerous country," he said, "but theythemselves want to talk to us."

While I suspect the initiative here is really on the Iranian side- because the Iranians are running scared over the D'Amato bill areworried that U.S. sanctions will severely disrupt their economy - itis clear that seen from Tehran any expression by the U.S. that it iswilling to talk, negotiate, or hold official government-to-governmentcontacts is a sign of U.S. weakness .

Similarly, whenever the State Department announces that the not opposed to the Islamic Republic, but only to its policies,Iranian leaders take heart. They believe the U.S. is so anxious torenew ties with Tehran that they are preparing to send secret envoysto discuss new business. Instead of appeasement, a more assertiveapproach would invoke the inalienable right of the Iranian people tochose their leaders and their form of government through popularconsent.

Our allies in Europe, and to a lesser extent, Japan, find even thecurrent U.S. approach - which seeks to end preferential trade,conventional arms sales, and dual-use technology transfers to Iran -too radical. Instead, the Europeans are pursuing a "criticaldialogue" with Tehran, which allows them to pretend they arepreserving their fundamental values and respect for human rights, allthe while they feed the Islamic republic with the best technologythey have got.

Here is how the European approach works. When German ForeignMinister Klaus Kinkel goes to Tehran, he meets with Ali AkbarVelayati and presents him with a formal "nonpaper" on Iran's humanrights abuses. Then he pulls out of his briefcase a sheaf ofcontracts that German companies are seeking with Tehran, and the inkbegins to flow.

I recently participated in a dialogue with a senior Germandiplomat at a forum chaired by Peter Rodman when he was still atCSIS, and asked him if he could point to a single Iranian concessionover all the years of "critical dialogue." Our German colleaguehesitated a bit, turned slightly red, and then acknowledged that hecould not.

Since 1982, Germany has sold on the average $2.5 billion worth ofhigh technology goods to Iran. What they have gotten in return is awell-funded Iranian intelligence network implanted on German soil,infiltrating the Muslim immigrant population, assassinating Iranianopposition figures in public restaurants, and using private Germanairports and German front companies to purchase technology sosensitive for their nuclear weapons program that even the Germangovernment would not authorize its sale to Iran.

German machine-tools can be found in every Iranian weapons plant,from companies such as Georg Fischer, Frederick Deckel, Fritz Werner,and Leybold. German chemical companies, including the giants Bayerand BASF, have built a pesticides plant in Qazvin that was soperfectly conceived for nerve gas production that the Germangovernment had to intervene in 1992 to block any further deliveries(but since the plant had already been operating since 1988, thedamage was done). Under intense U.S. pressure, German withdrew itsoffer to rebuild the damaged Busheir nuclear power station in 1992,paving the way for the current Russian contract.

And Germany, of course, is not alone. Iran became Italy'sthird-largest client for machine-tools in 1994, with sales of some$160 million, much of it to Iranian dual-use facilities; Britain,Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, and even Canada do a thriving businessin high technology with Iran. Japan's Kawasaki Heavy Industries isengaged in re-engining a fleet of rapid patrol boats purchased fromthe former East German Navy, and fitting them out with new weaponssystems. Alone among our allies, France has taken a more responsiblestand toward its own dual-use technology sales to Iran. But as therecent alleged transfer of Exocet missiles to Iran by the governmentof Prime Minister Edouard Balladur shows, France will not hesitate toship arms to Iran if it sees a benefit to such a move.

The Clinton administration has not been sitting idly by, and Icommend their efforts to get our allies to cooperate in stemming theflow of dangerous technologies to Iran. But as the few examples Ihave cited here show, polite diplomacy is not enough. Europe willcontinue to pursue its policy of critical dialogue as a fig leaf todisguise its naked mercantilism, until it is forced to do otherwise.This is just appeasement by another word.

Critical dialogue with the regime in Tehran offers the U.S. noleverage to achieve its policy goal, which is an end to disruptiveIranian behavior, including Iran's increasingly assertive threats toworld oil supplies. If Iran's track record with Europe provides anymeasure, then accomodation only emboldens Iran's leaders to increasetheir support for international terrorist groups, to further disruptthe peace process, to more flagrantly subvert neighbors such asBahrain, to pursue their military buildup in the Straits of Hormuz,and to continue their quest for a nuclear weapons capability which isyet one more tool in the mullah's hands toward regional domination.

So what leverage do we have if we abandon any hopes of reformingthe mullahs in Tehran?

The notion of containing Iran without engaging the regime is atempting one. Why not work with our allies to stop the things thatare truly dangerous and that are feasible to stop, while allowingthem to continue less sensitive trade if they so desire?

The simple answer is, containment is no longer enough. Iran hasbeen too successful in procuring nuclear weapons technologies, inspite of our entreaties with our allies. And when we have beensuccessful and have blocked a problematic sale, Iran has simply goneshopping in Russia, China, and India.

We need more powerful tools.

Beyond this, many of our allies simply don't share our perceptionof the Iranian threat. I have sat and listened to senior officials inParis, Bonn, and elsewhere complain that the U.S. is exaggeratingIran's nuclear weapons program, and that until some "hard proof"emerges of Iran's intentions, civilian nuclear trade should beallowed to continue. This is the same argument being heard from theRussians today - and to a lesser degree from the U.S. CommerceDepartment, which claims that its control lists are so effective inpreventing sensitive technology from being licensed for sale to Iranthat trade with Iran does not pose a strategic threat to the U.S.

As with Iraq in the late 1980s, we could show our friends reams ofevidence - as I believe we have - and they still would find faultwith it. The lure of huge export sales is simply too great, while theholes in Western export controls are large enough to drive a bombthrough.

The most stinging rebuff to dual containment was delivered inperson by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who stood on the White Houselawn with President Clinton on February 9 and complained of U.S.hypocrisy in asking Germany and other allies to curtail theirdual-use sales to Iran. If the U.S. was truly concerned about supportfor the Iranian regime, it should look at who was buying Iranian oil.It was not Germany oil companies, he said, but American oilcompanies. The U.S. should put order into its own house beforetellings its allies what to do.

The Clinton administration has apparently concluded that theGerman Chancellor is right about oil. U.S. oil companies purchasenearly one-quarter of all Iranian oil exports.

Now I have no illusions about what Germany and our other allieswill try to do once we ban U.S. companies from purchasing Iranianoil. So far, the only ally that has indicated it might adopt asimilar measure is Japan. If the Japanese come through, however, thiscould make a major dent on Iran's ability to market its oil, andhence Iran's ability to support expensive purchases of dual-usetechnology and terrorist programs abroad. U.S. and Japanese companiescombined bought 1.2 million b/d of Iranian oil in 1994, or some 42%of all Iranian oil exports.

A ban on oil purchases will send a clear signal to our allies thatnot only do we say we mean business - because dual containment isvery clear on that - but that we really do mean business when itcomes to putting pressure on the Tehran regime. The real key iswhether it will prompt them to re-evaluate their position.

An oil ban alone makes a strong moral statement. But applied inisolation, it is unfair to U.S. companies, who have been pursuingbusiness our policy up until now has allowed. Moreover, it isunlikely to have any more effect on the Europeans than our politediplomacy has had in the past. Europe is in the midst of a chroniceconomic slump which it cannot seem to shake, with unemploymentrunning at an average 12 percent, and significantly higher in somecountries. The European economies depend far more on exports than theU.S. ever has. In Germany, for instance, nearly 50% of economicoutput is exported, as compared to just over 10% in this country.

Even the oil ban could be strengthened. A number of foreign oilfirms do business in the United States - including British Petroleum,Shell, Agip, Sumitomo, Tomen, Elf-Aquitaine, and Total. Why shouldU.S. oil firms alone take the hit for a policy toward Iran whichWashington believes is aimed at protecting the collective security ofall of our allies? After all, Japan and Europe depend far more onGulf oil than we do. If the U.S. is supposed to maintain security inthe Gulf, then our allies can help when we believe that collectivesecurity is at stake.

Beyond this, I believe the President and our diplomats need a morepowerful tool of suasian, which they can use with discretion to getreluctant allies to come on board and do what otherwise they mighteschew because of a short-sighted vision of their own self-interest.Banning foreign companies from selling their goods in the UnitedStates if they continue to trade with Iran would not just send aclear message to our allies: it would drive them in panic fromTehran.

We are talking about big name companies here - Siemens, DaimlerBenz, Toyota, Aérospatiale. Given the choice of doing businesswith Tehran or doing business in the U.S., most would choose the the drop of a hat.

What I am suggesting, of course, is an activist's approach. Thisis because I am convinced there can be no reforming a regime thattakes its cue from God.

A friend of mine in Paris, a Colonel in the Iranian Army, oncejoked to me at the height of the Iran-Contra affair about the U.S.delusion in seeking moderates in Tehran. "The most moderate of themall is Ayatollah Khomeini," he said.

The prince of the so-called "moderates", Hashemi-Rafsanjani, sitsin on every single meeting of the Supreme Council on NationalSecurity dealing with Iran's nuclear weapons program. He personallytakes part in every decision to dispatch a hit team to assassinateIranian exile leaders abroad. As one senior U.S. official put itrecently, "Iranian "pragmatism" as personified by PresidentRafsanjani can best be described as the willingness to use the weaponof terrorism when it is in Iran's interest, while resorting to thetools of diplomacy when it is not."

But there is a more profound reason for favoring a more assertiveapproach at this juncture in history: it could actually work. Theregime in Tehran is in turmoil. In the 16 years since the revolutionagainst the Shah and the coup d'etat by followers of AyatollahKhomeini, never before have Tehran's rulers had to confront suchmassive social, political, and economic difficulties as today.

Over the past three years, riots have erupted in virtually everymajor Iranian city, including the bloody clashes that took place onApril 4 and April 16 in the Tehran suburbs, in which as many as 150people were reportedly killed.

Even Iran's clergy, once the very backbone of the regime, hasturned against it in recent years, creating a crisis of legitimacyfor a government which calls itself "Islamic." Of the remaining GrandAyatollahs still living in Iran - Ali Hussein Montazeri, HassanTabatabai-Qomi, Mohammad Rouhani, and Sadeq Rouhani - all oppose theregime and have called for the abolition of its most basicinstitution, the velayet faghih. All are also under house arrest.

There are many, many signs that all is not well in Tehran today,and that the regime is desperately looking for a way out. We reporton this regularly in The Iran Brief. As the protests become morebloody; the regime is seeking "front men" such as Ibrahim Yazdi -Foreign Minister in the first cabinet of Mehdi Bazargan in 1979 - whocould lead a transition government that will allow them to escape thewrath of the people and to expatriate the billions of dollars theyhave extorted in their official capacities over the past 16years.

I have been asked by senior U.S. officials what we can hope for inIran. Where is the opposition, they wonder? Why do we never hear oforganized groups inside Iran? And why do the exiles continue tobicker?

It's easy for us to judge the Iranian opposition sitting here inWashington, when no one is pointing a gun at our heads. Many of thosewho are in exile still have family inside Iran; while those insidewho have dared raised their voices have been walking a fine linebetween prison and summary execution.

Has there been no opposition in a country where more than 10,000people have been executed over the past 16 years for politicalcrimes, and which in 1994 detained 19,000 people as politicalprisoners, according to the UN Rapporteur for Human Rights, GalindaPohl?

Is there no opposition when riots break out in major cities suchas Meshed, Qazvin, Tabriz, Isfahan, and Tehran, which escalate soquickly the regime must call out special political shock troops toput them down, often at the cost of dozens of casualties?

Is there no opposition when a renowned Iranian writer, AliSirjani, is tortured to death in 1994, for having criticized theregime in print? Or when a major Tehran newspaper is closed forhaving published a satirical cartoon depicting Iran's Supreme Leader,Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i, early this spring?

Is there no opposition when the former head of the militarypolice, General Azizollah Amir Rahimi, is imprisoned in October 1994for having published an open letter calling on the mullahs to turnover power to a democratically-elected government?

Is there no opposition when the leader of a banned politicalparty, Daryoush Forouhar, issues a "Letter to the Iranian Nation" onMarch 21 - the ancient Persian holiday of Now Ruz - calling on themto overthrow the Islamic regime?

And is there no opposition when fifteen acting Iranian Generals,including five Brigadiers from the Revolutionary Guards Corps, send aletter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i calling for "an endto clerical meddling in the nation's politics" and expressing theirsupport for the emprisoned General Rahimi?

I believe a window of opportunity has opened in Iran - anopportunity for change, which if managed right, could lead to apro-Western, democratic regime.

Can the U.S. hope to influence the course of events? I believe theanswer is yes: cautiously, from a distance, and primarily throughpublic diplomacy.

My prescription is as follows:

• Temporarily cut-off in U.S. trade with Iran, clearly linkedto Iran's unacceptable behavior. The trade ban, to be effective, mustbe enforced by sanctions of foreign companies that seek to violateit. This would also entail the activation of existing legislativesanctions against China and Russia for their nuclear deals withIran;

• Increase public funding for broadcasting in theFarsi-language into Iran. Unfortunately, the administration, inresponse to Republican legislation, has cut back the funding for theVoice of America - including its Farsi-language service - as part ofan across-the-board cost-cutting measure. The CIA has also terminatedsome funding for opposition radio broadcasts into Iran, which shouldbe reinstated and expanded.

• Initiate public funding for human rights reporting insideIran, to give better and more graphic coverage of demonstrations,protests, and acts of repression by the regime.

These three steps would constitute a "containment-plus" policy,which I believe is firmly grounded in the traditions of U.S. foreignpolicy toward inimical regimes. Either we can compose with Iran, inwhich case, let's get down to business tomorrow; or Iran has becomean enemy of the United States.

If Iran has become an enemy, and if it is indeed pursuing thepolicies so vigorously opposed by the Clinton administration, then weneed a more vigorous response to counter Iran's behavior than dualcontainment.

Imagine for an instant what the Middle East would be like if theIslamic Republic ceased to exist and Iran were governed by aparliamentary democracy that respected free speech, the rights ofwomen, and abstained from foreign adventurism.

I believe that is a policy goal any administration, Republican orDemocrat, would be proud to pursue.