The Bush Administration, convinced that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, has called for a total embargo on the transfer of nuclear technology to the Tehran regime, the State Department's top Middle East expert said Wednesday.
Assistant Secretary of State Edward P. Djerejian told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that Washington does not believe Iran's claims that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes alone, even though the Islamic republic has opened its facilities to international inspection.
"We've had a longstanding concern about Iran's nuclear intentions," Djerejian said. "The United States engages in no nuclear cooperation with Iran, and we have urged other nuclear suppliers, including China, to adopt a similar policy. . . . We have been in touch with a number of potential nuclear suppliers (to warn) that engaging in any form of nuclear cooperation with Iran, whether under safeguards or not, is highly imprudent."
Djerejian's comments dramatized the continuing tensions between Washington and Tehran, despite recent efforts by Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani to reopen his insular country to the United States and the West. Iran recently earned praise for its aid in winning the release of hostages Thomas M. Sutherland and Terry Waite from their fundamentalist captors in Lebanon.
Djerejian, confirmed two months ago to the policy-making post, answered questions from the committee ranging across the spectrum of Middle East policy. He said that:
* Iraqi President Saddam Hussein seems to be losing his grip on power in the face of continuing international pressure. But Djerejian said the Administration may have to consider "other options" if economic sanctions against Iraq continue to cause real suffering for the civilian population.
* The United States and the Soviet Union will act in the next few days to set a date and place for the next round of Israel-Arab peace negotiations because the parties have been unable to reach agreement among themselves.
* The Administration supports "in principle" Israel's request for $10 billion in loan guarantees to house the influx of Soviet Jews. But despite repeated questioning, he declined to rule out another delay in acting on the request after the current 120-day pause ends early next year.
* The Administration has no plans to remove Syria from its list of states that support terrorism, although there is no evidence of direct involvement by Damascus in a terrorist act since 1986. He said Syria remains on the list because it provides "safe haven" to terrorist groups, including Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.
* Syrian military officers assigned to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley are deeply involved in the narcotics trade. Djerejian, a former ambassador to Syria, said he twice called on President Hafez Assad to discipline the traffickers, apparently without success.
* Saudi Arabia gave Syria a big payment, probably about $2 billion, for its participation in the Persian Gulf War; half of the money was spent on modern weapons for the Syrian army, while the rest was devoted to economic development.
In a related development, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said that Secretary of State James A. Baker III discussed the Middle East peace process, as well as other topics, by telephone with Eduard A. Shevardnadze, reappointed Tuesday as Soviet foreign minister. She said they agreed to talk again later this week, presumably to fix a date for resuming face-to-face talks between Israel and each of its Arab neighbors--Syria, Lebanon and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, in the United States for a round of speeches, will meet Baker this afternoon and President Bush on Friday. Shamir, in Boston on Tuesday and Wednesday, was quoted by the Boston Herald as saying he will recommend that the talks resume in Cyprus. Israel maintains that the talks should occur in the Middle East, alternating between Jerusalem and Arab capitals; Syria and other Arab parties want the talks in Europe, perhaps in Madrid where the process began last month.
In speeches in Boston and earlier in Los Angeles, Shamir insisted that Israel will not agree to withdraw from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights even in exchange for a peace agreement with its Arab antagonists.
But two liberal Jewish groups issued statements Wednesday calling on Israel to freeze construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and to agree to a peace settlement based on territorial compromise. In a survey conducted by the Wilstein Institute of Los Angeles of 205 members of the Council of Jewish Federations, 76% of respondents said that continued Israeli rule over the 1.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would make Israel "less democratic, less Jewish or both."
Although 99% said that Israel should retain control of an undivided Jerusalem, 78% said they would support a freeze on settlements under certain conditions.
The U.S. affiliate of the Israeli group Peace Now made public a letter, signed by 235 American rabbis, calling for a settlement freeze.
The issue of West Bank and Gaza settlements is at the heart of a rancorous dispute between Israel and the United States over Jerusalem's request for housing loan guarantees. At the urging of President Bush, Congress agreed to postpone action on the matter until January to prevent debate on the guarantees from interfering with Arab-Israeli peace talks.
Members of the generally pro-Israel Foreign Affairs subcommittee pressed Djerejian for assurance that the Administration would be ready to act in January. Although he said the Administration supports loan guarantees, if proper "terms and conditions" can be worked out, he refused to be pinned down on when the action might come.
He declined to specify terms, though other officials have made it clear that Washington wants Israel to agree to some sort of restrictions on settlement activity.
On Iraq, Djerejian said that Hussein's hold on power has become "brittle." He said the Iraqi president's grip on power is deteriorating and "the regime in Baghdad is showing a brittleness that we have not seen before. (Hussein) is depending more and more on his family, brothers-in-law, sons-in-law . . . drawing more on the small Tikriti clan and parts of that clan."
Djerejian said it is vital for the world to maintain economic pressure on Baghdad. But he conceded that the boycott is causing Iraqi civilians to suffer and said that it may be necessary to ease the sanctions.