January 30, 2003
Iran: The Other Big Middle East Danger
Over the past several months, the world has rightly focused attention on disarming Saddam's Iraq. Thanks to American leadership, the danger that Saddam's regime poses to the Middle East and to much of the world is again being addressed -- this time, we can only hope, decisively. But there is another government in the Middle East that, in the long term, could prove even more dangerous: Iran.
The State Department has consistently named Iran as the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism. As bad as Iraq, the Sudan and Syria may be, they are easily surpassed by Tehran's generous support of terror groups.
Every time Palestinian Islamic Jihad blows up a bus in Israel, you have elements of the government of Iran to thank, in part. In a disturbing trend, 2002 also saw increased Iranian support of, and influence in, groups connected to Yasser Arafat and the PLO.
Notwithstanding the struggle between "moderates" and "conservatives," the government of Iran is ultimately run by religious fanatics. Power is held by the supreme leader, a cleric, not the elected president.
It is one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Every year, it hangs, stones, mutilates or imprisons thousands of its people for perceived abuses such as adultery, slandering the regime and petty crimes that hardly warrant probation.
Religious and ethnic minorities are often targeted for arbitrary prosecution. Five of the 13 Iranian Jews from the southern city of Shiraz arrested in late 1999 on ridiculous charges of spying for America and Israel remain imprisoned. If only to show our solidarity with the oppressed Iranian people, we should urge that the world take a strong stand against this regime.
Most important for our own security, however, Iran seeks nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them globally. And on this issue, it seems all factions in the Iranian government agree.
Unlike Iraq, Iran has an effective and very active missile program, unhindered by multilateral sanctions or inspections. While we must take such reports with a grain of salt, U.S. intelligence analysts believe that North America will "most likely" face an intercontinental missile threat from Iran by 2015. And it would be far easier to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the U.S. than to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile.
More importantly, U.S. intelligence also estimates that Iran is about eight to 10 years away from nuclear weapons capability -- less if it receives more outside help then currently anticipated.
Unlike Iraq, there is no multilateral legal prohibition on doing business with Iran. Many of our friends and allies are seeking ways to curry favor with the regime in order to obtain favorable investment opportunities.
In the process, they provide the current government with economic development support, hard currency and diplomatic legitimacy. These are important props that are desperately needed by a regime whose legitimacy is being increasingly questioned by ordinary Iranians. Basically, the Europeans and Japanese may be helping to finance the potential destruction of American cities.
Both the Clinton and Bush administrations have worked to prevent weapons and dual-use technology sales to Iran. In our relations with Russia, weapons and dangerous technology transfers to Iran have always been at or near the top of the agenda.
Even if we have not always been successful in preventing weapons and technology sales to Iran (especially the assistance provided by Russia in constructing Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant), we have at least made a concerted effort on this front and have probably prevented some of the most dangerous transfers from occurring. But when it comes to economic relations between the West and Iran, we need to do much, much more.
In 2002, Iran and the European Union (EU) began trade talks aimed at a pact to boost trade and investment. The EU is already Iran's top trading partner, providing Iran with a $15 billion bilateral relationship in 2001. A new trade pact could lead to billions more in hard currency for Iran.
Last summer, European banks also underwrote a $500 million eurobond for Iran's central bank, an unprecedented financial agreement with no strings attached as to how the capital raised can be used. These developments can only mean more cash for terrorism, repression and the development of nuclear weapons.
Congress has taken action to try to prevent Western investment in Iran, at least in Iran's energy sector. I was among the leaders of the effort in 2001 to re-authorize the Iran-Libya Sanction Act, which authorizes the president to apply a host of sanctions to foreign firms that invest in the oil or gas industries in Iran.
This important legislation provides an added restraint on Western energy firms which would invest in Iran, but it cannot prevent all investment. It has been too often waived by the president (and Bill Clinton, as well), who has been loath to challenge the Europeans on this issue.
As part of their effort to rehabilitate the government of Iran, the Europeans and Japanese are also pushing for the World Bank to loan several hundred million dollars on concessionary terms to Tehran over the next two years. While these concessionary loans will go for purely civilian projects, they will alleviate the responsibility of the Iranian government to provide services to their people, allowing the regime to use oil revenues to pursue nefarious goals. While the U.S.A is required to vote against loans at the World Bank by law, our vote alone will not be sufficient.
In the face of these efforts by our friends to help our enemy, we have been largely silent. We can, and must, do more:
We all look forward to the day when Iran has a representative government that seeks true friendship and cooperation with the West -- this is the desire of the majority of Iranians, who seek ties with America. As the recent street protests in Tehran and other cities demonstrate, there is a very strong desire for change.
Our policy should, therefore, not seek to prop up the regime in the guise of engagement. Rather, in the current political situation, we in the West should take a firm and unified line against that tyrannical regime and seize an opportunity to help change that regime. Americans and the Iranian people will be better off for it.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) is a senior member of the House International Relations Committee.
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