New York Times
October 13, 1997
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
The French oil company Total, the Russian oil company Gazprom and the Malaysian oil company Petronas just signed a $2 billion contract with Iran to jointly explore its South Pars offshore gas field. The deal was strongly endorsed by the French, Malaysian and Russian Governments and is a direct challenge to the U.S. law that orders sanctions on any companies that do big energy business with Iran. Here’s my guess at what Secretary
of State Madeleine Albright and President Clinton are now saying to each other.
Clinton: “What a mess. France, Russia and Malaysia all together in one deal to stick a finger in my eye. [French President] Jacques Chirac just won’t forgive me for not giving France that southern command of NATO, and he’s using this to get his revenge. Jacques Chirac — that guy is the Janet Reno of diplomacy. With allies like him, who needs enemies?”
Albright: “Sure, what does France care? Iranian terrorists aren’t attacking their troops in Saudi Arabia. They don’t threaten Russians or Malaysians. What I’d really love to do is sell Iran some long-range missiles with the targeting already programmed to hit Paris, Moscow and Kuala Lumpur. Then we could say to ol’ Jacques: ‘Hey, Jacques, it’s just business, you know, nothing personal. We’re just trying to make a few bucks, and by the way, we’re still out of Iran’s missile range and you’re not anymore. But we’ll hold your coat while you do something about it.”
Clinton: “That would make my day. But we can’t. So what do we do? If we impose the sanctions on these oil companies, their Governments will just sanction our companies and we’ll be in a trade war. But if we waive the sanctions, Al D’Amato will scream that we’re wimps. On top of that, Mobil and Conoco, which I barred from doing business in Iran, are going to demand whatever we give the French or Russian oil companies.”
Albright: “Let’s face it, our Iran policy is coming apart. We need an adjustment. Here’s what I’m thinking: First, we have to impose our sanctions on Total, Gazprom and Petronas, even though none of them have much business in the U.S. to sanction. They have to feel our pain. We would have no credibility if we didn’t. But we also won’t have any credibility if we don’t test whether this new President of Iran, Mohammed Khatami, who was elected by a landslide precisely because the Iranian public thought he would be a moderate, can forge a different relationship with us. Some people say Khatami is just a puppet, and the bad guys are still in charge.
Some say he’s for real. Let’s find out. Let’s sanction the oil companies but announce at the same time that we will review the sanctions in six months. We’ll watch to see if there is any change in Iran’s hostile behavior. If there is, we will consider waiving the sanctions. This way we give the Europeans, Iran and the oil companies an incentive to show that Iran is changing, and we also show we are serious about responding to change.
Clinton: “Do you think the Iranians saw the signal you sent Wednesday?”
Albright: “The U.S. press missed it, but the Iranians won’t. When the State Department issued its list Wednesday of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” Americans cannot support, you can bet the first thing the Iranians did was look for their own groups. Imagine their surprise when they saw that I also put on the list the Iraqi-based anti-Iranian terrorist group “Mujahedeen Khalq.” The Iranians will get the point: We’ve just made it illegal for Americans to support the Mujahedeen — a group dedicated to overthrowing the Iranian Government. We also approved that gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Turkey, via Iran. Those are enough signals from us. It’s time for Teheran to send some back.”
Clinton: “Look, I’m dubious about Khatami’s prospects. I fear that Iran is like the Soviet Union — a totalitarian system that can’t be reformed. It either stays as it is or crumbles. I also fear that even if the so-called moderates in Iran do respond, the extremists will kill some Americans just to prevent any rapprochement. Still, it’s worth a try. With a normal relationship with Iran we could do a lot: counterbalance Russia and China’s influence in Central Asia, help Israel and be much more effective at isolating Iraq. So we might as well use this mess with France and the oil companies to test Khatami. Hey, when you’ve got lemons, make lemonade.”