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Iran Is Key for 2 Presidents Seeking Their Legacies

September 22, 2000|NAJMEDIN MESHKATI | Najmedin Meshkati is an associate professor of civil/environmental and industrial and systems engineering at USC. E-mail: meshkati@usc.edu

President Clinton, in the remaining months of his term, can make some bold decisions that would define his presidency--that one memorable act to overshadow impeachment, a finale, which he has been seeking through the protracted Middle East peace process. His Iranian counterpart, President Mohammad Khatami, is also in search of a legacy to leave behind when his stormy first term ends next year. Only a spectacular victory in the foreign policy arena, since his hands are tied by his domestic hard-line opponents, could temporary quell Khatami's increasingly disgruntled constituencies and his restless young supporters.

One of the biggest advantages of being a lame-duck, second-term president is that Clinton can act much more freely than any other policymaker. He can easily listen to his heart and conscience and ignore politically correct considerations. Iran offers him such an opportunity. He has the luxury of setting his foreign policy toward Iran free from powerful pressure and interest groups. By choosing to ignore them and act swiftly, he could easily spare a future U.S. administration from the burden of a very tough decision.

In the same way that Clinton imposed economic sanctions on Iran--by executive order--he could easily lift or drastically relax the sanctions, which according to the Iranian president is the foremost obstacle on the road toward normalization of the relationship between the two countries.

Those who heard Khatami's talks and watched his gestures at different events at the U.N. Millennium Summit this month in New York perceived the subtle waving of an olive branch to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Clinton. This represents an opportune opening for these U.S. foreign policymakers. They should seize the moment to end the stalemate and act decisively by dealing directly with Khatami and his administration.

A just and face-saving move by the U.S. administration in the form of a formal apology for engineering the 1953 coup and later meddling in the internal affairs of Iran, which Albright acknowledged in March, can greatly neutralize Iranian opponents of the normalization of relations with the U.S. These hard-liners constitute the biggest hurdle toward democratization and are also Khatami's opponents. They systematically are derailing his popular domestic reforms as well as blocking his foreign policy initiatives. The hard-liners are working at eroding his presidency and reconsolidating their grip on Iran.

Their latest challenge to Khatami was upstaging his U.N. visit by dispatching one of their staunch allies, Mehdi Karrubi, the speaker of Iran's parliament, to New York. The stated reason for Karrubi's trip was to lead an Iranian parliamentary delegation to the first international conference of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, held prior to the U.N. summit. However, unlike Khatami, who was hemmed in by protocol, Karrubi met with key U.S. Congress members, including an influential senator and leading executives of U.S. companies, including Conoco and Chevron.

Short of a miraculous comprehensive Middle East peace treaty, rapprochement with Iran is Clinton's best, and probably last, chance of crafting a noteworthy foreign policy legacy. Ironically, his mark on U.S. history could be similar to that of President Nixon, who faced impeachment, whose presidency was ended by the Watergate scandal and whose image never recovered fully from it. Clinton was impeached and his presidency and image have greatly suffered from the impeachment process. Nixon opened the road to isolated communist China, which did not make China an ally of the U.S. but at least converted it to a major trading partner. Clinton could do the same with Iran.

The American people may not have forgiven Nixon for his mistakes, but history applauds him for his legacy of crafting a bold foreign policy initiative and for its resulting breakthrough with China. What will be Clinton's legacy? Time is running out.

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