IRAN AND THE CLINTONISTAS
May 3, 2006
Advocates of solving the Iranian nuclear weapons crisis through negotiations
between the United States and Iran (and depending on the particular
advocate, the European Union and/or Russia, China and the United Nations)
face a huge challenge explaining away the failure of virtually all such
previous efforts. During the 27 years since the Iranian Revolution that
overthrew the shah, an unfortunate pattern has developed when it comes
to Western efforts to engage the mullahs: failure and embarrassment.
In 1979, for example, the Carter administration's efforts were stopped
by the seizure of the U.S. embassy by Iranian hooligans and the Reagan
administration's efforts were dashed in 1986 by reports that Washington
attempted to provide Iran with arms in exchange for the release of U.S.
A great deal less is known, however, about the Iran policy debacle
presided over by the Clinton administration. In 1997, Iranian President
Mohammed Khatami went on a charm offensive, including making conciliatory
statements on CNN and elsewhere. The rhetoric led the Clinton administration
to began making concession after concession: In May 1998, President
Clinton waived sanctions against Russian, French and Malaysian firms
hoping to develop Iran's South Pars natural-gas field -- activity that
would have yielded the regime a financial windfall to spend on things
like ballistic missiles and terrorism. In June, then-Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright announced that Washington had implemented a more
streamlined procedure for issuing visas to the Iranians and was prepared
to develop "a road map leading to normal relations."
The process of normalizing relations was complicated the following month
by Iran's testing of a medium-range Shahab-3 missile. In September,
Mr. Khatami travelled to New York for the opening of the U.N. General
Assembly, where he combined talk about a "dialogue among civilizations"
with the West with denunciations of "the violent whims of Zionists"
and U.S. government funding of broadcasts to Iran by Radio Free Europe
and Radio Liberty.
Despite continuing problems, the Clinton administration embarked on
a general review with the aim of relaxing sanctions on Iran. In March
2000, Mrs. Albright announced an end of the ban on imports of products
such as caviar and rugs, and she apologized for the U.S. role in the
1953 coup that brought the shah to power. In response, the country's
supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, denounced rapproachement with the
United States as "treason."
While this was going on , former FBI Director Louis Freeh writes in
his autobiography that Mr. Clinton sidetracked the investigation into
the June 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers, a housing complex for American
servicemen in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in which 19 U.S. airmen died. The
attack was carried out by an Iranian-backed terrorist group called Saudi
Hezbollah. But according to Mr. Freeh, the Clinton administration was
so determined to press ahead with its campaign for a diplomatic opening
to Iran that it failed to press the Saudis for access to several suspects
in the case and did little to assist the FBI investigation.
Negotiations with Tehran have done little to advance U.S. policy interests.
The burden rests with advocates of further negotiations to prove the
mullahs will act differently than they have in the past.