U.S. May Lift Sanctions on 3 Key Iranian Exports
In what would be a groundbreaking initiative to spur rapprochement with Iran, the Clinton administration is close to a decision to lift economic sanctions on Iranian carpets, caviar and pistachios, U.S. officials said Monday.
The gesture, one of several now being considered, would follow the sweeping election victory last month by Iranian reformers, ending two decades of domination by conservatives in Iran’s parliament.
“We clearly view the parliamentary elections as an important step, and we want to make clear our attitude, that we think it would be very desirable to have better channels of communication,” said a senior administration official who requested anonymity.
Lifting sanctions on the three key exports would be the broadest public overture to Iran since relations deteriorated in 1979, when Washington admitted the exiled Iranian shah into the United States. Iranian students responded by seizing the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and holding 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
After oil and gas, which account for most of Iran’s foreign income, carpets, pistachios and caviar are its most important exports. But U.S. officials say potential sales of the three products to U.S. buyers would not be significant enough to enable Iran to finance development of weapons of mass destruction, a key concern of critics.
The administration has made no secret of its interest in finding ways to end two decades of bitter relations between the two nations. The hostility has been fueled by matters such as Iran’s support for extremist groups linked to the bombings of U.S. facilities in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. Navy’s downing of an Iranian passenger jet in 1988, which killed all 290 on board.
Last weekend in Los Angeles, President Clinton called Iran “one of the most wonderful places in all human history” during an appearance at a Democratic Party fund-raiser held at the home of a prominent Iranian American.
“I hope and pray that what we’ve seen in three elections there means there is movement toward openness and freedom there too,” Clinton said. “I’ve done my best to support that process in the limited way an American president can.”
U.S. officials feel comfortable with the sanctions initiative, in part because of a shift in public opinion in both countries since the 1997 election of President Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s leading reformer. Within months, Khatami opened the door to relations by publicly calling for people-to-people exchanges to “bring down the wall of mistrust.”
A 1998 survey by the nonpartisan Foreign Policy Assn. found that 91% of Americans supported opening a dialogue with Iran. A new FPA survey late last year indicated that 72% of Americans favored ending sanctions, while 80% supported concrete U.S. concessions to strengthen Khatami’s government and permit a renewal of relations.
The public mood has shifted in Iran too, and not only among reformers. At Friday prayers last week, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a member of the Council of Guardians and one of Iran’s leading conservatives, hinted at a new flexibility on relations with both the United States and Israel.
After criticizing both nations for past meddling in Iran and Lebanon, he said: “If they did not infringe on our lives, resources, honor and prestige, then we would not bother them. We could treat them like the rest of the people in the world. We extend our hand of friendship to all nations in the world. . . . We do not like to isolate ourselves.”
On election eve, Ali Reza Nouri, a reformer who won election to parliament, proposed a referendum on opening a direct dialogue. He said that the early revolutionaries had decided policy for 20 years and that it is time to allow a new generation to make its own choices.
The Clinton administration is now intent on testing the potential for rapprochement. “This is an obvious moment to take another look. We’ve had several signs from Iran that they’re looking for a signal. And we want to make clear we want to explore another kind of relationship,” said a well-informed U.S. source.
The administration’s greatest opposition may now come from Congress. As the White House debates a range of possibilities to improve the prospects of dialogue, key members of Congress are attempting to increase pressure on Iran.
Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Connie Mack (R-Fla.) are pushing legislation that would allow victims of terrorism who prevail in court to recover financial awards from the frozen assets of nations that the U.S. government says support terrorism.
The bill was introduced after a New Jersey family sued Iran for its role in the death of Alisa Flatow, who died in a 1995 bus bombing in the Gaza Strip claimed by Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group backed by Iran. Iran did not contest the suit, and the Flatows won a judgment of more than $240 million. But they have been unable to collect from the pool of Iranian assets frozen during the 1979-81 hostage crisis. When the Flatows went to court again to try to get access to the frozen funds, both a district court and an appeals court turned them down.
“To rejoin the community of nations, Iran would need to stop developing weapons of mass destruction and missiles to deliver them and end its support for terrorist groups,” Lautenberg said Monday. “Moreover, Iran must accept responsibility for terrorism it has supported and compensate the Flatow family and other American victims of Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks for the tremendous losses they’ve suffered.”
Last week, both the Senate and the House approved legislation allowing the White House to penalize or impose sanctions on Russia and other countries that help Iran develop nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. The bill was modified to make the penalties discretionary rather than mandatory.
The only specific overture to Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution occurred during the Reagan administration, when the United States secretly traded arms for help with the release of hostages held by Iranian allies in Lebanon in 1985-86.
Times staff writer John Daniszewski in Cairo contributed to this report.