- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 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. hostages.

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.

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