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June 2, 2022
U.S. Shifts Policy on Iran
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Matt Dupuis

In addition to pushing for increased multilateral efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear program, the United States has taken several unilateral and bilateral measures recently to adjust its relationship with Tehran.

The measures include stepped-up efforts to build a democratic opposition to Iran’s Islamic regime, direct talks with Tehran about its activities in Iraq, and congressional efforts to further tighten U.S. sanctions on those who might aid Iran.

How well these policy strands will work together is not clear. For example, as a Department of State official involved in ongoing diplomacy acknowledged March 17, the administration’s challenge is, “Can we come up with something clever enough to support two aims: one, get Iran to make a strategic decision to give up its nuclear weapons program and two, help bring leadership change and democracy to Iran.”

But the most dramatic step might be the recent agreement by the two countries to participate in bilateral talks about Iraq. Following U.S. requests for such talks, Iran announced on March 16 that it would be willing to participate. A date for the talks has not yet been set.

The United States has sought to end what it terms Iranian interference in Iraq’s political affairs, including its belief that Tehran is pro viding components used in improvised explosive devices found in Iraq and employed by insurgents fighting U.S. and Iraqi forces.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said March 17 that Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, has been authorized for “some time…to meet with his Iranian counterpart if he believes that it would be useful to do so,” a policy that dates back to Khalilzad’s tenure as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

But U.S. officials, including Rice and White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, have insisted that the talks will be restricted to that subject and not venture into the nuclear realm. Ali Larijani, head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, agreed to those conditions in announcing Iran’s acceptance of the talks, and the talks were later publicly endorsed by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei.

Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, March 16 explained the administration’s rationale for limiting the talks to Iraq. Hadley said that in Iran “there is beginning to be a debate within the leadership, and I would hope a debate between the leadership and their people, about whether the course they are on is the right course for the good of their country. That has only come about because they have heard a coordinated message from the international community. It has been difficult to hold together; it has taken a lot of time.

“And I think when you talk about saying, well, let’s have bilateral diplomatic contacts, you have to ask yourself whether that is going to serve the overall interests or is in fact going to break the international consensus and suggest to Iran that they have an alternative way, other than responding to the demands of the international community,” Hadley added on the nuclear issue.

Other U.S. Policy Moves

However, in a two-part Feb. 27 interview with TIME magazine, Larijani did not rule out directly meeting with the United States on the nuclear issue.

“We have no problems in negotiating on nuclear issues, and also issues of interest to Muslims, things that will bring calm to the region, provided that they are honest and that Mr. Bush does not harangue us. To us, negotiations are not the end. If the aim is clear, then this means can be used too,” Larijani said.

The announcement came against a backdrop of other U.S. policy moves, including veiled threats of military force and ambiguous statements about whether the United States favors a regime change policy in Iran.

Hadley’s remarks, for example, came after a speech in which he released the administration’s newest National Security Strategy. That document, which updates a similar Bush administration document, reaffirms the pre-emptive use of military force as an option in pre venting attacks with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. It also says that, with Iran, diplomacy “must succeed if confrontation is to be avoided” and says that the United States “may face no greater challenge from a single country than Iran.”

U.S. officials have also said that their disputes with Iran go be yond resolving the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors vis-à-vis its nuclear program. Other long-standing U.S concerns include Iran’s alleged support for terrorism, its opposition to the Middle East peace process, and its alleged violations of human rights.

In that light, Rice made another policy departure in Feb. 15 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She announced that the administration would ask Congress for $75 mil lion in current-year supplemental funds for democracy promotion inside Iran , with $15 million to support “civic education,” $5 million for sponsoring Iranian student visits to the United States, and $5 million for media efforts to reach people in Iran. The remaining $50 million is to be used to increase U.S. broadcasting efforts inside Iran , likely through Radio Farda. Radio Farda is the broadcast through Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that began transmitting into Iran in October 1998 and was renamed in December 2002.

Rice also said the administration planned future funding boosts “to increase our support for the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people as we identify worthy initiatives.” Bush has previously given rhetorical support to such efforts but little funding.

The Islamic Republic News Agency reported on March 13 that the Iranian Foreign Ministry forwarded a letter to the Swiss embassy in Tehran protesting the funds for democracy promotion. The letter reportedly called the move “provocative and interference in Iran’s internal affairs.”

Nonetheless, U.S. lawmakers indicated support for such measures in legislation approved by the House International Relations Committee March 15 on a 37-3 vote. The measure is also aimed at curbing progress in Iran’s nuclear program by updating the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996. That law was revised in 2001 and is set to expire later this year. (See ACT, September 2001.) It requires the United States to impose sanctions on foreign companies that invest more than $20 million per year in Iranian oil or gas development. No sanctions have ever taken effect under it, however, despite major violations by French, Italian, Malaysian, and Russian entities because of diplomatic opposition to such “secondary sanctions.”

The current legislation would allow for imposing sanctions, at the president’s determination, on any person that exports, transfers, or provides to Iran “any goods, services, technology, or other items” that knowingly aid the ability of Iran to develop weapons of mass destruction or “destabilizing numbers and types of advanced conventional weapons.”

It also urges the administration “to work to secure support at the United Nations Security Council for a resolution” to impose sanctions on Iran “as a result of its repeated breaches of its nuclear nonproliferation obligations.” The bill is to remain in effect until Iran has verifiably dismantled its suspected “weapons of mass destruction programs.”

The committee-passed bill includes measures that tighten the application of existing sanctions. In particular, congressional aides said that it seeks to force the executive branch to investigate credible reports of sanctionable activities. The law requires that the president issue a sanctions determination within one year of receiving such a report and clear a two-year backlog of such investigations. It seeks to broaden the net of firms covered by these activities to institutions such as insurers, underwriters, or guarantors who knowingly help finance any investments as well as to foreign subsidiaries of U.S. firms. It also encourages U.S. pension funds and mutual funds to divest from foreign companies investing in Iran’s petroleum sector.

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the committee’s ranking member, said persuasion will not work with Iran. “We can only hope to inflict such severe economic pain on Tehran that it would starve the leadership of the resources they need to fund a costly nuclear program,” he said .

However, the administration has not fully embraced the measure. In testimony on March 8 before the House panel, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns raised concerns that some provisions in the bill might strain relations with close U.S. allies whose help the United States will need to change Iran’s behavior.