- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2000

With the recent landslide victory of reformers in Iran's parliamentary elections, calls to lift U.S. economic sanctions on Tehran are growing. But considering that Islamic hard-liners still control many of Iran's power centers and have yet to repudiate terrorist tactics such a move could remove the single largest incentive for the moderation of Iran's hostile foreign policy.
Abandoning economic pressure might seem like a logical response to the rising power of the reformist coalition led by President Mohammed Khatami. After all, his reform program, which includes relaxing harsh Islamic social restrictions, expanding individual liberties and liberalizing Iran's stagnant economy, promises to build a more tolerant and less violent Iran. The reformers' victory reflects the widespread disaffection of Iranians with the current Islamic regime, which has repressed freedom at home, isolated Iran from the world and ruined Iran's economy.
But the reformers' success is unlikely to have an immediate and decisive moderating influence on Iran's hostile foreign policy, which remains firmly in the hands of Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, Iran's supreme leader, and his hard-line supporters. Islamic zealots still dominate Iran's judiciary, the police, the Revolutionary Guard, the state-controlled radio and television media, and the Islamic foundations, which control more than one-quarter of the economy.
Ayatollah Khamanei, who succeeded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the Faquih, or supreme leader, remains Iran's ultimate political and religious authority. Although reformers may make faster progress with a majority in parliament, Ayatollah Khamanei still has considerable power to thwart their efforts. For example, all legislation must be approved by the Council of Guardians, a 12-member supervisory body of clerics and Islamic law experts, half of whom are appointed by Ayatollah Khamanei.
Major changes in Iranian foreign policy are unlikely in the immediate future. The reformers will not want to risk disrupting their coalition or provoking a certain confrontation with the hard-liners until they have addressed more pressing social, economic and political issues. Besides, Ayatollah Khamanei retains control over Tehran's foreign policy and security affairs by virtue of his command of the Iranian armed forces, the intelligence agencies and the Revolutionary Guard.
Under Ayatollah Khamanei, Iran continues to support terrorism. Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet recently testified before Congress that Iran remains "the most active state sponsor of terrorism" in the world. Iran also violently opposes the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations and continues to arm and finance radical Islamic groups opposed to peace with Israel, such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad. And Iran's persistent clandestine efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon led the CIA in December 1999 to conclude that it cannot rule out the possibility that Tehran has acquired one.
Despite these ominous trends, the Clinton administration has eased economic sanctions against Iran in an effort to entice Tehran into a dialogue. It has waived sanctions against foreign oil companies that invest in Iran's energy industry and allowed U.S. aircraft manufacturers to sell spare parts to Iran's national airline. Yet Iran continues to spurn U.S. calls for a rapprochement, insisting that Washington must make the first move by lifting all economic sanctions.
In light of the reformers' victory, the Clinton administration may be tempted to abandon economic pressure on Iran in a misguided effort to engineer a detente with Iran. But relaxing economic pressure on Iran now would let Tehran off the hook just when Washington's sanctions policy appears to be paying off by exacerbating political discontent with the hard-line Iranian leadership and assisting the political victory of the reformers.
Lifting sanctions sends the wrong signal: that Iran can enjoy better relations with the West while continuing to export terrorism. It would deflate Mr. Khatami's incentives for moderating Iran's foreign policy and would vindicate hard-liners who argue that Iran can foment Islamic revolution at little cost to its own national interests. Indeed, a premature U.S. embrace of Mr. Khatami could backfire by provoking hard-liners to stage a coup against him or sabotage a rapprochement through terrorism.
Instead of rushing into a one-sided detente, Washington should cautiously probe the willingness of the new Iranian leadership to end its hostile policies. But U.S. economic sanctions should be firmly maintained until Tehran takes concrete steps to end its support of terrorism, its violent opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process and its nuclear weapons programs. Sanctions helped create the conditions that brought the Iranian reformers to power, and they remain a useful tool for inducing Iran to make the difficult transition to a genuine democracy.

James Phillips is a research fellow specializing in Middle East affairs at the Heritage Foundation's Davis Institute for International Studies.

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