by Eric Margolis © 1997 Eric Margolis
Iran launched a surprise charm offensive this week, throwing Washington into serious confusion.
In a lengthy interview on CNN, Iran's new president, Mohammad Khatami, skilfully analyzed the bitter relations between the two nations, and cautiously extended an olive branch to Washington, calling for an end to the 19-year cold war between the two nations.
Khatami's diplomatic ju-jitsu flummoxed the Clinton Administration, which was busy trying to rally international support against Tehran - and to overthrow Iran's elected government.
Both capitals are split over the question of relations.
In Washington, the military establishment and conservative Republicans have inflated Iran to justify military budgets, and keep US forces in the Mideast.
The powerful Israel lobby, which dominates Congress and the Administration on all Mideast issues, is relentlessly pushing the US to isolate, then crush, Iran, thus removing any potential military rival to Israel.
Israel's media supporters maintain a steady drumfire of alarms about Iran's support of terrorism, secret nuclear programs, and opposition to Mideast peace - all reasons cited by the Administration to maintain active hostility towards `rogue state,' Iran.
Interestingly, Israel itself has adopted a far more nuanced and sensible policy towards Iran. Israel uses a stick - the militant American Israel lobby and its point-man, Senator Al D'Amato - to threaten Iran with US military attack and punish it with sanctions. As a carrot, Israel is discreetly rebuilding its once close relations with Iran by offering arms, intelligence sharing, technology, and finance.
Behind all their public fulminations, Israel and Islamic Iran have secretly done lots of business since the 1980's. including Israel's sale of US$4 billion of arms to Iran. Israel regards Arab-hating Iran as a natural ally, and enormous business prospect.
Many senior members of America's foreign policy establishment are now calling for repair of US-Iranian relations. Central Asia and the Caspian Basin will be the primary source of oil and gas in coming decades. Iran lies at the heart of this region. Its roads, pipelines, rail lines, and ports will be the strategic nexus of energy geopolitics.
Washington is determined to dominate Central Asia's resources. To achieve this, America needs Iran as a close regional ally. Continued hostility with Iran gravely undermines US strategic goals and national interest.
In Tehran, the debate is equally charged.
Militant Islamic dogmatists, led by Iran's spiritual chief, Ayatollah Khamenei, demand continued confrontation with `Great Satan' America, overthrow of America's Mideast allies, and Iran's insulation from `godless American culture.'
A second faction, led by President Khatami, and backed by the `bazaris,' Iran's merchants, want improved relations with Washington to end America's economic siege and isolation of Iran - and provide support against Iraq and Russia.
American charges against Iran: * Iran `supports terrorism.' Iran backs Hizbullah, the resistance movement fighting Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon . Hizbullah, which was partly created by Israel, is not a terrorist movement. No proof has ever surfaced of US claims Iran was involved in bombing of American military forces. Iran has given funds to Hamas in Palestine, but for Hamas' extensive charitable works,not for making bombs, Tehran insists, rather unconvincingly.
* Iran opposes the Oslo peace accords. Tehran says they are a sell-out that denies the right of millions of displaced Palestinians to return home. Israel's ruling Likud Party also opposes Oslo.
* Iran is developing weapons of mass destruction. According to evidence shown me by a highest intelligence source, Iran definitely did attempt to develop nuclear weapons five years ago. Tehran has made almost no progress since. Its civilian nuclear program is under full UN inspection. Tehran is acquiring some chemical weapons and missiles that might reach Israel.
* It's naive to believe Iran or the Arabs will allow Israel to keep its nuclear monopoly, which petrifies the entire Mideast. Israel is manufacturing alarms about Iran's weapons programs to divert attention from its own refusal to allow any international inspection of its huge arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Iran is not about to attack Israel. Iranians know any chemical or biological strike would trigger an Israeli nuclear response. Nor is Iran a military threat: Tehran last year spent a paltry US$90 million on arms. What about Iran's charges? * The US has brutalized Iran. Washington overthrew the legitimate government of Iran in 1954, imposing the loathsome Shah and his thieves on Iranians. CIA and Israel's Mossad trained and ran the Shah's dreaded Savak secret police, which tortured and murdered tens of thousands of people.
* America incited Iraq to invade Iran in 1980 to crush the Islamic revolution, then provided massive war aid to Saddam. Half a million Iranians died.
* The US Congress publically allocated $20 million to overthrow Iran's elected government, The US has secretly funded anti-regime groups, notably the Iranian People's Mujahadin - the Mideast's worst terrorist group - since 1980. Its bombs have killed half of Iran's leaders. Neither side has clean hands. Still, it's high time for a thaw between the two nations, whose strategic interests are increasingly converging. Demonizing each another as `Great Satans' is infantile behavior, not policy.
President Khatami has done both nations a major service. Washington should respond in kind.
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]