A REPORT soon to be released from the State Department will crystallize the debate over how the United States should deal with Iran. This issue has been unresolved since the Reagan administration's Iran-contra scandal.
Like its predecessors, the Clinton administration has had tough words for the Tehran regime. President Clinton pledged to counter ``Iran's involvement in terrorism and its active opposition to the Middle East peace process.'' Secretary of State Warren Christopher has branded Iran ``an international outlaw.'' CIA director James Woolsey has described Iran as ``by far the most active and dangerous state sponsor'' of terrorism.
Beyond the words, the question is how the US should position itself toward the Rafsanjani government. Should it pursue dialogue and compromise - even though the mullahs, clerics, who govern Iran have shown no desire to respond to such an approach? Or should it pursue pressure and containment, encouraging those who would overthrow the mullahs' regime?
The State Department report, done at the behest of Congress, mainly deals with the People's Mojahedin. This is an opposition group that wages an active campaign against the Tehran regime in the world of international lobbying; the group also mounts guerrilla raids into Iran from Iraq.
The State Department report will cast a negative eye on the Mojahedin. US officials believe that in the past the Mojahedin have themselves been guilty of anti-Americanism and terrorism. The State Department does not like the fact that the Mojahedin receive sanctuary and support from Saddam Hussein, who has just reemerged as the boogeyman of the Middle East. US officials charge that the Mojahedin, in return for Saddam's blessing, may have helped him in suppressing the Kurdish people.
The Mojahedin, despite the State Department's adamant refusal to talk with them, maintain a sophisticated lobbying operation in Washington. They say the State Department is rough on them because it is afraid of offending Tehran, with which it ultimately hopes to do business. The Mojahedin claim that the Tehran government has mounted a vigorous campaign to influence the State Department report against them - and has sent emissaries to the US to encourage Americans espousing rapprochement with the mullahs. The Mojahedin are not without their own supporters here, including a slew in Congress who think the State Department ought to be talking with an organization that is in a war against a regime that is also the enemy of the US.
The New York Times weighed in with a recent editorial denouncing the US boycott of the Mojahedin and deploring the fact that the boycott was treated as a victory by the Iranian mullahs. ``This,'' said the Times, ``comes with special impudence from clergymen who clamor for the death of the novelist Salman Rushdie, who are plausibly linked with the murder of Iranian dissidents in France, Switzerland, and Turkey and whose agents are believed to have assailed Mr. Rushdie's translators and publishers in Japan, Italy and Norway.''
But State has stonewalled. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Robert H. Pelletreau told the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this month: ``The argument goes that we cannot prepare an unbiased report on the Mojahedin as mandated by Congress without sitting down and talking to its leaders. We believe such contacts are unnecessary.''
Ironically, Mr. Pelletreau was the first officially sanctioned US diplomat assigned to deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization at a time when it was widely reviled and discredited.
If the US can talk with the Irish Republican Army and the North Koreans and the former military junta of Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras in Haiti, it is difficult to see why it cannot explore face to face with the Iranian Mojahedin the accusations against them.