NEW YORK, Jan. 29 (JTA) – As the Bush administration settles in, several signs suggest it will pursue a policy toward Iran that resembles U.S. policy toward China, in which commercial interests outweigh human rights concerns.
This could deal a blow to U.S. Jews lobbying on behalf of 10 Iranian Jews imprisoned – wrongly, it is widely believed – for spying for Israel.
It also doesn’t bode well for the other 25,000 Jews remaining in Iran. A trickle continues to emigrate each year, discouraged by the treatment of Jews in Iran’s Islamic republic and by the prospects of future reform.
Indeed, the Clinton administration made initial overtures to Iran last spring – lifting a ban on the import of pistachios, carpets and caviar – and voiced its support for the country’s fledgling reform movement.
Yet Tehran appears to be repaying the gesture by turning even more hard-line: A fresh crackdown on critics of the regime has landed a number of students, journalists and dissident clerics in jail.
It’s unclear if this signals a death knell for reform efforts, or if it could spark a violent backlash from opponents of the regime.
Despite the crackdown, recent U.S. news reports say Washington is weighing the possibility of lifting or downscaling sanctions against Iran.
American companies are banned from doing business in Iran because of its place on the State Department’s annual list of sponsors of terrorism. In addition, a 1996 law calls for punitive trade measures against foreign companies and countries that invest in Iran’s energy sector.
One common argument against sanctions is that they are ineffective against Iran but harm American business. While American oil and energy concerns can’t invest in Iran, competitors – from France and Russia, for example – conduct business there freely.
In his mid-January confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Colin Powell said relations with Iran would be reassessed.
“We have important differences on matters of policy,” Powell said, “but these differences need not preclude greater interaction, whether in more normal commerce or increased dialogue.”
At the same time, the State Department is said to have put out feelers to various special interests – including Jewish advocates for the “Iran 10″ – to gauge their reaction if sanctions are ended.
“They say the carrot-and-stick approach hasn’t worked with Iran, so why deny American business in the process?” said Pooya Dayanim, spokesman for the Los Angeles-based Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations. Dayanim is one of those the State Department contacted.
“They believe that once there’s more interaction, with businessmen going back and forth, it could ease the tension between the two countries and the fate of Iranian Jews,” he said.
A State Department official declined to respond.
Another leading advocate for the jailed Jews confirmed that the idea of engaging Iran is being circulated.
“I don’t know who’s been contacted, but the idea has been floated, indirectly,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Not all agree that the sanctions regime has been ineffective.
While economic sanctions indeed have failed in some world trouble spots, “it is clear that sanctions against Iran have worked,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary-general of the American Iranian Jewish Federation of Los Angeles.
“At least some reform is attributable to the fact that at some point, some Iranians realized that the government cannot stay hostile to the world and pursue violent policies, and at the same time expect the rest of the world to fall in line and extend them credit and investments,” Kermanian said.
“Lifting sanctions now would be seen as support for the hard-liners,” he added.
In any case, prospects for a reprieve for the Iran 10 have dimmed. They were sentenced in September to terms ranging from two to nine years, allegedly for spying for Israel.
Their court appeal appears to have been rejected last week, though there has not yet been any official confirmation.
Advocates say the Iran 10 have been made into scapegoats to divert Iranians’ attention away from pressing social and political concerns toward a fabricated threat.
The families of the Iran 10 have indicated that their jailed relatives have given up hope of receiving justice through the courts and are ready to accept their fate, Dayanim said.
Their last chance may be an appeal for clemency to Iran’s Supreme Ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“They say, ‘When the Supreme Ruler decides to let us free, that’s when we’ll be free,’” Dayanim said.
In the meantime, Jews continue to emigrate from Iran at the rate of 300 to 400 a year, gradually bringing to a close the 2,700-year Jewish presence in Iran. Emigration reached its peak in the mid-1980s, when as many as 4,000 Jews left each year.
A recent batch of immigrants – leaving legally through Vienna, which generally is a temporary stop en route to the United States – included the family of one of the Iran 10.
Dayanim and his colleagues were disturbed to learn that relatives of a second prisoner recently were forced off a plane headed to Vienna, and their passports were confiscated.
Several observers suggested it is still too early to speculate on Bush administration policy toward Iran, and said it is understandable that a new administration would review its predecessor’s policies.
However, big business presumably will find a sympathetic ear in the White House. Both President Bush and Vice President Cheney are former oil executives, and Cheney, as head of oil services giant Halliburton, lobbied the Clinton administration to lift sanctions on Iran.
Iran is reported to be OPEC’s second largest producer of oil after Saudi Arabia, generating some 3.7 million barrels per day.
On the other hand, observers say, a split Congress may find it difficult to ignore Iran’s nuclearization program, its production of biological and chemical weapons and its sponsorship of terrorism.
The Conference of Presidents has several meetings scheduled with administration officials in coming weeks.
Iran “will certainly be on our agenda,” Hoenlein said, “and I assume it will be on theirs.”
The mantra of “trying to strengthen the hand of moderates – this is a fiction,” Hoenlein said. “There are many conclusive signs that indicate no moderation.”
Rather, revolution may be on the horizon.
“The facade of” Iranian President Mohammed “Khatami as a reformer has fallen off,” Dayanim said.
“The students, as the heart of the reformist movement, are becoming more militant and openly critical of the system under which they live,” he said. “Fifty thousand students recently wrote to the government, saying, ‘Change, or else.’ “
Lifting the U.S. sanctions, Dayanim added, would be “a monumental mistake. If they hold back a year or two, I think the government” in Iran “will change.”
What’s not clear is how many Iranian Jews will be around to see it.