- The Washington Times - Monday, September 10, 2001

As the Bush administration deciphers the implications of the recent "re-selection" of Mohammed Khatami to a second term as president and charts U.S. foreign policy toward the clerical regime in Tehran, it must factor in the dangerous set of events precipitated by the Islamic Republic towards its weaker Muslim neighbor, Azerbaijan.

On July 23, Iranian gunboats and aircraft forced work to stop on the giant Alov oil project in the Azerbaijan sector of the Caspian Sea by threatening to shoot the oil workers. The Alov project, operated by British Petroleum on behalf of Azerbaijan (U.S. oil giant ExxonMobil is also a partner), is the world's largest undrilled structure with possible reserves of 10 billion barrels of oil. According to Western intelligence sources, this decision was sanctioned by Iran's National Security Council, headed by Mr. Khatami (ironically the man who advocates a "dialogue of civilizations").

Despite protests from Azerbaijan and the United States, Iranian planes continue to violate Azerbaijan's air space because Tehran wants to force President Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan to change his pro-American (and pro-Israeli) orientation. In short, Tehran's strong-arm tactics against American's ally Azerbaijan clearly demonstrates that the Islamic regime is unwilling to consider moderation.

With this in mind, the essence of U.S. policy toward Tehran's theocracy should be to separate the Islamic regime from the people of Iran. News organizations in the United States and other countries have described the elections in Iran as a struggle between the "reformist-Khatami" movement and "radical conservatives." The reality is far more complex.

The real political question being asked by millions of Iranians is not which faction of the fundamentalist regime can address their socioeconomic problems, but what options, other than a theocracy, can save them from permanent Third World status and continued repression. Like all oppressed people longing for freedom, Iranians look to America for hope.

Therefore, the United States should not invest all of its diplomatic and political energy on working with the "moderates" inside the regime. Instead, the United States must invest in the people of Iran and their wish for a non-violent transition toward a more democratic society. Washington should consider a policy of engagement and collaboration with those forces inside Iran whose ultimate goal is political secularism and the principles of individual liberty, human rights and democratic freedoms, within the parameters of their Islamic identity.

The geopolitical ramifications for the United States of a secular democracy in Iran are enormous. Iran would be de-coupled from its strategic partnership with Russia. The main sponsors of terrorism against Israel - Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas - would no longer be beneficiaries of Iranian largess. Instead, the historic friendship between Persians and Jews would lead to the immediate recognition of Israel and its right to exist. Iran would no longer intimidate Washington's allies in the region. There would be yet another outlet for the export of oil and gas from the Caspian Sea basin. Most important, by opting out of an oppressive Islamic system, the Iranian nation would be sending a powerful message to those countries in the region flirting with Tehran's Islamic model of governance.

Beyond geopolitics, President Bush now has a new opportunity to indicate to the Iranian people that the United States once again is ready to be Iran's partner in prosperity. Specifically, Washington should further relax its sanctions policy in select areas that can help the people of Iran immediately.

For example, authorizing the sale of critically needed diagnostic medical technology and medicines can reduce the human costs of a failed public-health policy in Iran. Access to personal computers and software will allow the youth of Iran to access the world beyond the walls of Iran's religious dictatorship. Sales of civil aircraft and maintenance parts should resume so that Iranian passengers can once again fly safely, ending the horror of flying in crumbling, Soviet-era aircraft. And finally, the president can signal his personal interest in the plight of this ancient nation by asking the Immigration and Naturalization Service to end the humiliating practice of fingerprinting Iranians entering the United States.

For the first time in 22 years, the dynamics inside Iran present the United States with an opportunity to advance U.S.-Iran relations, based on the universal and basic principles of liberty and freedom. While many in Iran may not have heard of John Quincy Adams, his summary of America's foreign-policy goals should be our guide: "Wherever the standard of freedom has been and shall be unfurled, there will be her heart, her benediction and her prayers."

S. Rob Sobhani is president of Caspian Energy Consulting and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

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