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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Policy on Iraq, Iran Shows Strains

WASHINGTON -- For six years, the United States has tried to rein in and isolate Iran and Iraq at the same time. The current confrontation with Iraq shows how much harder it gets, year by year, to keep President Saddam Hussein under control. And perhaps more ominously, it comes as Iran is moving on its own toward breaking free of U.S.-led restraints.


On Iraq, the U.S.-led coalition is merely fraying because Saddam's crude challenges to the United Nations and the international system are creating temporary collective unity against him.


But the parallel effort by the United States to contain Iran through economic sanctions is falling apart.


While the world's attention is on Iraq, where Saddam is preventing UN inspectors from monitoring what remains of his weapons program, senior U.S. officials think the situation in Iran is much more dangerous in the long run. The United Nations has no comparable international monitoring of Iran's efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction and missiles capable of hitting Israel, Saudi Arabia and Europe, these officials said.


Yet Washington's efforts to impose on the rest of the world its policy of isolating Iran is causing deep rifts with its closest allies in Europe and Canada, as well as with Russia. The rift focuses on U.S. efforts to impose sanctions on foreign companies that trade with Iran.


As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright struggled last week with Iraq and tried to make some progress on the stagnant Israeli-Palestinian talks, other senior U.S. officials were engaged in quiet, top-level discussions with the Europeans and Russians about Iran and how to avoid a situation in which the United States would actually impose punishment on foreign companies that do business there.


When it was formulated, the policy of trying to control both Iran and Iraq quickly acquired the label "dual containment.'' Now seven years after the Gulf War, it seems in tatters.


Richard Murphy, a former assistant secretary of state for Middle East affairs, said: "We have let our policy get frozen. It was sufficient to say 'dual containment.' But that's not a way our government can afford to act.''


Dual containment was a slogan created for a speech by U.S. President Bill Clinton in May 1993. Congress turned it into a reality with the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, proposed by New York Senator Alfonse D'Amato and embraced by Clinton.


Today, almost all of the United States' allies think that the policy as it applies to Iran is not working. "A reassessment of Iran policy is long overdue,'' a senior European diplomat said. "The United States is isolating itself more successfully than it is isolating Iran.''


A senior British diplomat says the U.S. effort to punish foreign companies for doing business in Iran is wholly unacceptable. "It throws us on the other side of the debate,'' he said.


The 1996 law requires sanctions against companies that invest more than $20 million in Iran's energy industry but does allow the sanctions to be delayed or waived in the national interest if the countries involved show movement toward deterring terrorism from Iran.


Under the act, the United States is currently investigating five foreign energy companies that have announced two large deals with Iran. Those deals were interpreted as a direct challenge to U.S. policy.


The most attention has been paid to a French oil company, Total, which Sept. 28 signed a $2 billion contract to explore for gas in Iran. In fact, Total is a minority shareholder with 40 percent of the deal, while 30 percent is held by Petronas, a Malaysian company, and another 30 percent by Russian natural gas giant Gazprom.


Stuart Eizenstat, U.S. undersecretary of state for economic affairs, is in Europe working on these cases. Frank Wisner, a Clinton special envoy, is in Moscow on a mission to get Russia and its newly privatized companies to stop helping Iran develop missiles that can carry nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.


Senior European diplomats say that U.S. officials have told them they are looking for reasons to waive the sanctions against the five energy companies in the Iran energy deal. But Eizenstat says the law is being followed with vigor.


But other senior U.S. officials stress that the point of the 1996 legislation is to change Iranian behavior and make it harder for Teheran to develop missiles and other weapons and to support terrorism. They concede that European nations are not important to such programs in Iran.


The Europeans say the Americans are asking them to tighten existing restrictions on aiding Iran in developing weapons or missiles. This might allow the Clinton administration to win a waiver of sanctions from Congress.


While the Clinton administration still argues that economic pressure works against Iran, a senior British diplomat says that while sanctions have hurt the Iranian economy, "it has not made a jot of difference to Iran's aspirations to develop weapons of mass destruction, or to its work on those weapons, or to its support for terrorism.''


Another European diplomat agreed, saying that what will change Iranian behavior is Iranian politics, and that the United States should be encouraging more moderate trends there, finding ways to carefully boost the new president, Ayatollah Mohammed Khatami.