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Tehran’s Self-Image a Problem : Experts Advise Patience in U.S. Dealings With Iran

Times Staff Writer

“One of the many disastrous consequences of our 18-month dialogue with Iran,” a State Department official said recently, “is that it confirms Iran’s own self-image--that it is the center of the world.”

By giving Iran what it wanted, U.S. arms and spare parts, in exchange for dubious help in freeing American hostages, the White House unwittingly signaled Tehran’s leaders that Washington considers their country so important that it is prepared to endure humiliation to regain Iran’s favor--just as tributary states have done since Cyrus established the Persian empire in 539 BC.

“Now that we would like to start something fresh, it is a lot more difficult in practice in light of what has happened,” the State Department official said.

In the wake of the Iran- contras affair, a new American consensus seems to have emerged--that it is in the national interest of the United States to reopen regular communications with the Iranian regime that held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days ending in 1981. President Reagan cited the need for improved relations with Iran as justification for the arms shipments, and even critics of his policy generally dispute only the means, not the goal.

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But what can be done to advance that objective now? Most experts on Iran policy, both in and out of the government, say Washington’s best strategy, at least for the short term, is to state clearly its terms for improved relations, then sit back and let the Iranians take the next step.

Such a strategy will not produce instant results, these specialists agree, but it will not make matters worse either. Anything else, ranging from additional friendly gestures to renewed hostility, probably would be counterproductive.

However, it probably will take longer for such a strategy to produce results than it would have without the arms sales because the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s regime, flush with the recent memory of how it out-bargained the Americans, could be expected to demand further concessions that Washington cannot even consider.

Hint of Inflated Terms

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A hint of Iran’s inflated terms for restoring ties with the United States was contained in a dispatch from Tehran by the tiny South-North News Service, which correctly predicted the imminent release of Wall Street Journal correspondent Gerald F. Seib, who was detained for several days earlier this month.

Apparently drawing from the same sources that had disclosed the Iranian government’s decision to free Seib, the news agency said: “A highly reliable source in Tehran said that Secretary of State George P. Shultz is the only person in the Reagan Administration opposing the normalization of ties between the United States and Iran. . . . Iranian specialists in U.S. affairs believe it is likely that President Reagan will ask Shultz to resign in order to pave the way for normalizing Iranian-U.S. relations.”

Far from offering Shultz’s head to the Iranians, the President has designated the secretary as his spokesman on policy affecting Tehran. In recent congressional testimony, Shultz made clear that the ball was now in Iran’s court.

“While we have an interest in improving our relations with Iran, the Iranians have an interest in normal dealings with us as well, and until they recognize their own interests and act upon them, our relations are unlikely to improve.”

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A Waiting Game?

But will the U.S. public settle for a waiting game? Now that Iran has again become a focus of American attention, there may be pressure on the Administration to do something, ranging all the way from an open gesture of friendship to military action against Tehran.

A State Department official conceded that it will be difficult to persuade the public to support a passive strategy.

“It is even difficult to sell that within the government,” he added.

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Nevertheless, the official said, that is Washington’s best policy, “absent indications that there are other possibilities.”

Non-government specialists in Middle Eastern politics generally agreed that there is very little Washington could or should do at present.

“Efforts to try to change things in a sudden way may trigger events we can’t control,” said Shireen T. Hunter, a former Iranian diplomat who is deputy director of the Middle East project of Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It is not so much what we should do about Iran as what we shouldn’t do. I don’t believe that the United States should be more eager than Iran to restore relations.”

‘A Slow Process’

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Gary G. Sick, the National Security Council’s Iran expert under former Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter who is now program officer in the International Affairs Department of the Ford Foundation, said: “I would hope that some of those contacts, which seem to have been genuine, involving people on the Iranian side who were willing to risk a lot even to talk to the United States, could be revived. But that is a slow process.”

Sick, author of “All Fall Down,” a book about what he called the “political and strategic disaster” of U.S. relations with Iran before and during the hostage crisis, said that both Washington and Tehran have an interest in improving relations. But it cannot be done quickly.

“There was a chance to establish a relationship (during the White House contacts with Iranian leaders), but it was handled in a way almost guaranteed to raise doubts about double-dealing on both sides,” Sick said.

James Bill, director-designate of the Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary, said the Administration has never given Iran a clear-cut indication that it was ready for better relations.

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‘Strict Neutrality’ Advised

“Even while we were selling them arms, publicly we were insulting them and supporting Iraq in the (Persian) Gulf war,” Bill said. “We should maintain a position of strict neutrality on the war. You don’t change policy overnight and start sending out positive signals. It isn’t necessary to do that. All we have to do is stop sending negative signals.

“In the Middle East, patience and time and low-key contacts are very important and are part of the political terrain,” Bill said. “We are not very patient. We do not understand that a policy of ignorance and arrogance is counterproductive.”

Also, any new U.S. gesture toward Iran would almost certainly cause additional damage to U.S. relations with the Arab world, already soured by arms sales to non-Arab Iran in the midst of a protracted war with Arab Iraq.

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Washington built its strategy in the Persian Gulf around Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi before he was overthrown in 1979, a development that was not popular with the Arabs. By its seeming eagerness to restore ties to Iran this year, the United States has reinforced the impression that it considers Iran more important than Saudi Arabia and other gulf Arab states.

Time to ‘Stand Fast’

Shultz sought to redress that imbalance when he told Congress that “America’s near-term priority is to reassure the gulf Arab states of our support and to stand fast on our anti-terrorism and arms embargo policies.”

“There are a lot of Arabs that are likely to draw the conclusion that the United States thinks Iran is more important than they,” Sick said. “Iran is very important. But the Arab reaction is another reason why, in the short term, taking any sort of dramatic action is not advisable.”

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Experts in and out of government maintain that the United States must make it clear that it will not again compromise important principles to curry favor with Iran.

“We can be tough with the Iranians,” Sick said. “What disturbs me most about this recent contact is that we weren’t tough. We didn’t ask for very much; we paid in advance and, when they didn’t deliver, we paid them again. That’s pretty dumb, and it is weak.”

Nevertheless, many believe, it probably would make things worse if the United States applied military pressure to Iran or if it tried to interfere in Iran’s internal politics, either by supporting one faction over another in the existing regime or endorsing anti-government exile groups.

‘Internal Dynamics’ a Mystery

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“We know so little about the internal dynamics of the Iranian government that it is wildly unlikely that we could have a goal in mind and implement some policy that would be beneficial to any particular group,” a State Department official said.

Hunter said it would be unwise to back any faction in Iran “because they might lose.” And, she said, the United States should not embrace any faction because, “if things go sour, the moderates would be discredited.”

Hunter also warned that, if the United States were to take military action against Iran, no Iranian government--regardless of its composition--would be able to deal with Washington for a very long time. Even an escalation of hostile rhetoric, she said, “would be playing into the hands of the radicals.”

The Administration, which is supporting anti-government guerrillas in Angola, Afghanistan and Nicaragua, has ruled out any sort of contact with the Moujahedeen, a self-proclaimed armed opposition group in Iran. In a report to Congress several months ago, the State Department described the insurgents as radical, anti-American and violent and said it considers the group even worse than the present government.

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Besides, in the view of non-government experts, the Moujahedeen has no chance of winning.

“The Moujahedeen is now based in Baghdad--is that going to appeal to the Iranian people?” Sick asked. “Some of the Iranian people may not like Khomeini, but they certainly don’t like the Iraqis. The other exile groups are so busy fighting among themselves that they can’t be expected to accomplish anything.”


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