1998 Congressional Hearings
Special Weapons
Nuclear, Chemical, Biological and Missile


Dialogue with Iran
Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Richard W. Murphy, Senior Fellow for the Middle East
Council on Foreign Relations
May 14, 1998

The time has come to reshape American policy toward Iran. For nearly two decades, the difficulties we have had with that country have left a bitter legacy for American leaders and the American public. However, Iranian domestic political developments over the past year and increasing tensions with some of our closest allies over how to treat that country make a US policy reevaluation imperative.

Since President Mohammed Khatemi's election last May, the atmosphere for each side to consider a US-Iranian dialogue has improved. The start up of this dialogue will take some time given the inhibitions prevailing in both capitals. As Washington considers a new relationship, it should recognize the depth of its ignorance about present day Iran which was always noted for the complexity of its politics and government structures. The 19 years since the revolution have surely created no less complex a scene today. We are less equipped to understand its domestic politics than when we had a major embassy in Tebran.

I recommend that Washington consider sponsorship of an arms control regime initially to include Iran, Iraq and the Gulf Cooperation Council states; defer decisions on the issue of routing gas and/or oil pipelines from the Caspian states; and be prepared with a proposal for a global settlement of the outstanding claims at the Hague Tribunal. These thoughts are developed in the second half of this paper.

Since the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, our Iran and Iraq policies have been tightly linked. During the Iran-Iraq war we gradually tilted towards Iraq. Since 1993, Washington has followed the so-called "Dual Containment" policy. This linkage has reinforced our tendency to think about both Iran and Iraq primarily in military terms, as threats to US interests in the Gulf region and beyond. The "Dual Containment" formula has served to stifle debate in Washington about alternative ways of dealing with these two countnes.

Presidential executive orders restricted and ultimately banned US-Iranian trade and investment. Those orders in conjunction with the Iran Libya Sanctions act of 1996, in which the Administration acquiesced under congressional pressure, will constrain any initiatives which the Administration might want to take to chart a new course. Similarly in Tehran, President Khatemi, who has declared his respect for Western achievements and the necessity for Iran to learn from them, is not free to authorize an official dialogue with the US. Instead he has proposed a period of increased cultural and educational exchanges. Washington has agreed and in response will simplify its visa procedures for Iranian applicants and encourage Americans to visit Iran in such exchanges. It has also reaffirmed its long held position that it is ready to deal with an authorized Iranian government representative to discuss our respective charges.

President Khatemi presumably expects that a period of unofficial exchanges will make it easier for Tehran one day to engage in official meetings. He may share the views of more junior Iranian officials who have spoken of the embarrassment suffered by some Iranian officials who had backed the signing in 995 of an oil exploration agreement with CONOCO when Washington forced that company to cancel it. Prominent American officials have reinforced Iranian suspicions that basically we still want to overthrow the Islamic Republic regime. Despite an apparently cordial encounter earlier this year between Speaker Gingrich and the Iranian Foreign Minister, Iranians are quick to recall the Speaker's earlier call for an appropriation to underrnine the regime. A further example of what Tehran sees as an effort to destabilize it came earlier this month in the congressional call for creation of a "Radio Free Iran." The annual State Department report on terrorism again this year repeats harsh language about Iran some of which reads as out of date. However, the investigation into the al-IThobar towers bombing remains open and evidence of Iranian government complicity could prejudice improvement of relations.

The Iranian revolution has lost some of its original steam but the present leadership includes clerics who resent our dominant world position, who see American culture as hostile to what they want for Iran and who deeply oppose America's military presence in the Gulf. Despite the encouraging substance and tone of the new President's statements we know that he is not the sole decision maker and must assume, for example, that he does not control all of Iran's several intelligence services. These services owe their allegiance to various clerics many of whose attitudes towards the West in general and the US in particular are not as benign as those which Khatemi professes. They could take initiatives which could complicate improvement in our bilateral relations This is not said to minimize the significance of Khatemi's views or of his electoral victory last May when he won 70% of the popular vote in a campaign most assumed had been rigged in favor of another candidate.

Despite their evident concerns that Washington has not moved to amend its policy towards Tehran, Iranian leaders have continued to send out positive political signals concerning issues of deep interest to Washington. Foreign Minister Karrazi 's recent comments related to the ArabIsraeli peace process are intriguing. First was his comment about Israel's stated readiness to withdraw from south Lebanon in accordance with UNSC 425. Karrazi said this withdrawal would effectively end the mission of the Hizbollah militia. Second, and equally welcome, was his comment that Iran would not oppose a Palestinian-Israeli agreement acceptable to the Palestinians.

Proposals for US Actions

Regional Arms Control. Arms control steps such as hot lines, transparency of exercises and discussions of mutual needs and force structures could prove useflil. Arrns control talks never resolved basic political issues or averted security competition between the United States and the Soviet Union but they did help moderate and stabilize confrontations on the margin.

On the assumption that weapons of mass destruction (WMD) will continue to be studied and perhaps developed in the Persian Gulf and broader Middle East, I propose American promotion of a regional arms regime for the Persian Gulf states, i.e. Iran, Iraq and the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Including Iran and Iraq would be a goal for which, I believe, we would find support in Moscow and Europe and one which China would not oppose.

Fear of one's neighbor prevails throughout the Gulf region and many predictably, if privately, will justify their intent to develop weapons of mass destruction in the name of assuring their national security. As for Iran, some of its senior diplomats have suggested that they would welcome discussions about the Gulf as a nuclear free zone. Currently there are severe economic pressures on both Iraq and Iran as a result of the devastating wars they have endured and the depressed prices for their oil. Such pressures conceivably could increase their readiness to discuss taking some initial steps in an arms control process.

The Iraq situation has sensitized us as to how cheap it is to make chemical and germ warfare agents and how easy it is to hide them. Nevertheless, we may discover that the Gulf situation contains some of the same problems with which we once wrestled in negotiating arms control with the Soviet Union and may present some similar opportunities.

We appear to be more concerned about WMD in the Middle East than many of the regional countries themselves are. Regional leaders seem to doubt the massive destructive power of these weapons. Those leaders who are friendly to Washington assume that if weapons of mass destruction are all that important then the US will somehow manage to resolve the issue. To reassure them and to get the Gulf region as a whole thinking about a regional dialogue with each other on any kind of arms control regime will require a US lead. If successfiil it could greatly benefit American interests in the Gulf region and in the broader Middle East.

Pipelines.

If the international oil companies working in Central Asia do not need to start construction of new pipeline routes immediately, the US Government should not lock the door prematurely against the prospect of a new pipeline transiting Iran. The routing of new pipelines will have profound political and economic implications for years to come. Today, some in the Administration and Congress fiercely resist any easing of US sanctions on Iran. Depending on how the US-Iranian dialogue develops, these elements may be more ready to rethink their positions in the coming months and years.

Hague Tribunal.

Prepare proposals for a global settlement of the remaining Iranian and American claims before the Hague Tribunal. I understand the Iranian representative to the Tribunal has already informally floated the idea of moving to a general settlement.

Israel.

Consult closely with Israel and with the influential lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee about how to encourage trends in Iran which are supportive of US and Israeli interests. Some in Israel have publicly debated whether Israeli policy towards Iran might need changing. For its part, AIPAC was an important player during Congressional consideration of the sanctions legislation. Its support for any redirection of America's Iran policies will be highly desirable.