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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 Forum Paper
Presented before
The Honorable John McCain, U.S. Senator (AZ)
The Honorable Dianne Feinstein, U.S. Senator (CA)
May 1, 1995
U.S. Capitol, Room SC-5
Washington, DC


Reprinted in Fighting Proliferation: New Concerns for the Nineties, Henry Sokolski (editor), Air Force University Press, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, Sept. 1996.


The litany of Iran's misdeeds has been spelled out in detail by Secretary of State Christopher and other U.S. officials in public speeches, articles, and discussions with foreign leaders. Iran's support for international terrorism, its self-avowed goal of obstructing the Arab-Israeli peace process, its nuclear weapons program, its subversion of neighboring regimes, and its grotesque violation of human rights are not a subject of dispute. Clearly we have a regime in Tehran which is inimical to the United States and toward 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 own multitude of variants. Either we take an activist's approach, and seek a change of regime in Tehran; or we take the accomodationist's approach, and try to work out some modus vivendi with the ruling clerics. There is no middle ground between these two positions; and I believe 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. The United States has been burned before in its dealings with Tehran; and, increasingly, there are clear signs that the regime is in trouble. One could argue that by waiting, and standing off, the U.S. could reap the fruits of the activist's approach without ever exposing itself to the dangers. The regime could very well fall of its own.

While this is a very tempting proposition, it is simply too good to be true. After sixteen years of revolution, Tehran's leaders are still obsessed with the United States. If things get worse, and they feel their regime begin to totter, they will lash out against the U.S. as the cause of their demise, regardless of whether the U.S. is involved or not. In the eyes of the ruling clerics, the U.S. is already seeking to undermine their regime, and has been for the past sixteen years. We can protest our innocence all we like: but to Rafsanjani, Khamene'i, and their colleagues, we are the enemy, and we are 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 to 10,000 Indian Shiite Muslims. "Just as you have fought against British imperialism," he said, "we have also been battling against American imperialism.".

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

This year on April 9, deputy Parliament speaker Hassan Ruhani, who is also Ayatollah Khamene'i's personal representative on the Supreme Council for National Security, ridiculed the U.S. because it was "desperate" to open negotiations with Tehran. "The Americans tell the world that Iran is a dangerous country," he said, "but they themselves 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 are worried that U.S. sanctions will severely disrupt their economy - it is clear that seen from Tehran any expression by the U.S. that it is willing to talk, negotiate, or hold official government-to-government contacts is a sign of U.S. weakness .

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

Our allies in Europe, and to a lesser extent, Japan, find even the current 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 "critical dialogue" with Tehran, which allows them to pretend they are preserving their fundamental values and respect for human rights, all the while they feed the Islamic republic with the best technology they have got.

Here is how the European approach works. When German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel goes to Tehran, he meets with Ali Akbar Velayati and presents him with a formal "nonpaper" on Iran's human rights abuses. Then he pulls out of his briefcase a sheaf of contracts that German companies are seeking with Tehran, and the ink begins to flow.

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

Since 1982, Germany has sold on the average $2.5 billion worth of high technology goods to Iran. What they have gotten in return is a well-funded Iranian intelligence network implanted on German soil, infiltrating the Muslim immigrant population, assassinating Iranian opposition figures in public restaurants, and using private German airports and German front companies to purchase technology so sensitive for their nuclear weapons program that even the German government 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 Bayer and BASF, have built a pesticides plant in Qazvin that was so perfectly conceived for nerve gas production that the German government had to intervene in 1992 to block any further deliveries (but since the plant had already been operating since 1988, the damage was done). Under intense U.S. pressure, German withdrew its offer 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's third-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 business in high technology with Iran. Japan's Kawasaki Heavy Industries is engaged in re-engining a fleet of rapid patrol boats purchased from the former East German Navy, and fitting them out with new weapons systems. Alone among our allies, France has taken a more responsible stand toward its own dual-use technology sales to Iran. But as the recent alleged transfer of Exocet missiles to Iran by the government of Prime Minister Edouard Balladur shows, France will not hesitate to ship arms to Iran if it sees a benefit to such a move.

The Clinton administration has not been sitting idly by, and I commend their efforts to get our allies to cooperate in stemming the flow of dangerous technologies to Iran. But as the few examples I have cited here show, polite diplomacy is not enough. Europe will continue to pursue its policy of critical dialogue as a fig leaf to disguise 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. no leverage to achieve its policy goal, which is an end to disruptive Iranian behavior, including Iran's increasingly assertive threats to world oil supplies. If Iran's track record with Europe provides any measure, then accomodation only emboldens Iran's leaders to increase their support for international terrorist groups, to further disrupt the peace process, to more flagrantly subvert neighbors such as Bahrain, to pursue their military buildup in the Straits of Hormuz, and to continue their quest for a nuclear weapons capability which is yet one more tool in the mullah's hands toward regional domination.

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

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

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

We need more powerful tools.

Beyond this, many of our allies simply don't share our perception of the Iranian threat. I have sat and listened to senior officials in Paris, Bonn, and elsewhere complain that the U.S. is exaggerating Iran's nuclear weapons program, and that until some "hard proof" emerges of Iran's intentions, civilian nuclear trade should be allowed to continue. This is the same argument being heard from the Russians today - and to a lesser degree from the U.S. Commerce Department, which claims that its control lists are so effective in preventing sensitive technology from being licensed for sale to Iran that 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 of evidence - as I believe we have - and they still would find fault with it. The lure of huge export sales is simply too great, while the holes in Western export controls are large enough to drive a bomb through.

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

The Clinton administration has apparently concluded that the German Chancellor is right about oil. U.S. oil companies purchase nearly one-quarter of all Iranian oil exports.

Now I have no illusions about what Germany and our other allies will try to do once we ban U.S. companies from purchasing Iranian oil. So far, the only ally that has indicated it might adopt a similar measure is Japan. If the Japanese come through, however, this could make a major dent on Iran's ability to market its oil, and hence Iran's ability to support expensive purchases of dual-use technology and terrorist programs abroad. U.S. and Japanese companies combined 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 that not only do we say we mean business - because dual containment is very clear on that - but that we really do mean business when it comes to putting pressure on the Tehran regime. The real key is whether it will prompt them to re-evaluate their position.

An oil ban alone makes a strong moral statement. But applied in isolation, it is unfair to U.S. companies, who have been pursuing business our policy up until now has allowed. Moreover, it is unlikely to have any more effect on the Europeans than our polite diplomacy has had in the past. Europe is in the midst of a chronic economic slump which it cannot seem to shake, with unemployment running at an average 12 percent, and significantly higher in some countries. The European economies depend far more on exports than the U.S. ever has. In Germany, for instance, nearly 50% of economic output is exported, as compared to just over 10% in this country.

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

Beyond this, I believe the President and our diplomats need a more powerful tool of suasian, which they can use with discretion to get reluctant allies to come on board and do what otherwise they might eschew because of a short-sighted vision of their own self-interest. Banning foreign companies from selling their goods in the United States if they continue to trade with Iran would not just send a clear message to our allies: it would drive them in panic from Tehran.

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

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

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

The prince of the so-called "moderates", Hashemi-Rafsanjani, sits in on every single meeting of the Supreme Council on National Security dealing with Iran's nuclear weapons program. He personally takes part in every decision to dispatch a hit team to assassinate Iranian exile leaders abroad. As one senior U.S. official put it recently, "Iranian "pragmatism" as personified by President Rafsanjani can best be described as the willingness to use the weapon of terrorism when it is in Iran's interest, while resorting to the tools of diplomacy when it is not."

But there is a more profound reason for favoring a more assertive approach at this juncture in history: it could actually work. The regime in Tehran is in turmoil. In the 16 years since the revolution against the Shah and the coup d'etat by followers of Ayatollah Khomeini, never before have Tehran's rulers had to confront such massive social, political, and economic difficulties as today.

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

Even Iran's clergy, once the very backbone of the regime, has turned against it in recent years, creating a crisis of legitimacy for a government which calls itself "Islamic." Of the remaining Grand Ayatollahs still living in Iran - Ali Hussein Montazeri, Hassan Tabatabai-Qomi, Mohammad Rouhani, and Sadeq Rouhani - all oppose the regime and have called for the abolition of its most basic institution, 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 report on this regularly in The Iran Brief. As the protests become more bloody; the regime is seeking "front men" such as Ibrahim Yazdi - Foreign Minister in the first cabinet of Mehdi Bazargan in 1979 - who could lead a transition government that will allow them to escape the wrath of the people and to expatriate the billions of dollars they have extorted in their official capacities over the past 16 years.

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

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

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

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

Is there no opposition when a renowned Iranian writer, Ali Sirjani, is tortured to death in 1994, for having criticized the regime in print? Or when a major Tehran newspaper is closed for having 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 military police, General Azizollah Amir Rahimi, is imprisoned in October 1994 for having published an open letter calling on the mullahs to turn over power to a democratically-elected government?

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

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

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

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

My prescription is as follows:

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

• Increase public funding for broadcasting in the Farsi-language into Iran. Unfortunately, the administration, in response to Republican legislation, has cut back the funding for the Voice of America - including its Farsi-language service - as part of an across-the-board cost-cutting measure. The CIA has also terminated some funding for opposition radio broadcasts into Iran, which should be reinstated and expanded.

• Initiate public funding for human rights reporting inside Iran, 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. foreign policy toward inimical regimes. Either we can compose with Iran, in which case, let's get down to business tomorrow; or Iran has become an enemy of the United States.

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

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

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