THE White House may have grit some teeth in blocking a $1 billion Conoco Inc. oil deal with Iran. But it has done the right thing. Lines needed to be drawn on direct United States business with the Tehran government, in keeping with US policy since the hostage-taking of 1979. A policy must have boundaries or limits -- or soon it is no longer a policy.
While it is true that US companies profit enormously from business done with Iran through overseas subsidiaries, there has been no direct business link. This distinction may be lost on some, particularly in Europe. But the Clinton administration has tried to give it meaning, and rightly so under present conditions. Were the Russians not preparing to help Iran develop nuclear energy capacity, and were the Chinese not sending bits of missile technology to Iran, and were Iran not continuing its own policy of supporting Islamic militancy beyond its borders -- perhaps direct ties could be discussed or even established, as they have been with another old nemesis, Vietnam.
But this is not yet the case. The US is, frankly, in a different position from Britain and France and Germany and Japan. It means more when the United States gives a green light. Principles and interests ought to win out over business and profit, especially in matters of security; the administration's score in this area has not yet been tallied on North Korea, the Balkans, and China. Iran is a good place to draw a line.
This does not mean we support the somewhat ham-handed and reactive proposal recently put forward by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York to block all ties to Iran. If handled intelligently, business relations can be a useful first step toward engagement. Besides, given the degree of business conducted by other states with Iran, what effect would such a policy have? Israel's concerns about Iranian arming of Hizbullah and other militant groups need to be listened to. But they should not drive US policy.
Still, one cannot discuss Iran as one might a Group of Seven nation, which is easy to do when corporations get excited about making deals. Iran's policy has become two-faced: Externally it projects a business face and a desire to reenter markets. Meanwhile, internally, brutal practices continue, and the clerics have not given up their belief in Iran as the true carrier of the faith, the Islamic revolution.