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Why the US Should Help Iran

HISTORY records terrible failures when nations whose cultures and motives differ do not communicate. Robert McNamara's new book on Vietnam make this tragically clear.

Across the world from Vietnam, 16 years of American isolation from Iran has not disrupted the Iranian revolution. US allies and partners acknowledge this.

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In the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iran shed its monarchical political culture and acquired a new political identity. After 16 years, internal and external pressures make it difficult to maintain that identity.

Internally, the economy and unemployment challenge the stability of the government in Tehran. Prices have increased 100 to 150 percent in recent months, precipitating riots, some deadly.

The eight-year war with Iraq (1980-1988) cost Iran $1 trillion. The Iranian economy has yet to recover. Before the revolution, the per capita income in Iran was $2,500. In 1994 it was $1,200. A population of 70 million (half under age 25) and a 30 percent unemployment rate, with 40 percent inflation, does not bode well.

President Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose term ends in 1997, knows well the social effects of economic reform. When the shah decided to regulate private commerce and end profiteering, the bazaar merchants turned against him. They are rebellious again. Islamic guidelines limit profits but enable the state to subsidize food and fuel costs.

Currently, an important test is under way with a planned deregulation of energy prices. One program calls for the transfer of 60 percent of the economy to the private sector in five years. However, the first five-year plan has not succeeded; a second five-year plan is devoted to completing the first.

Externally, Iran is the United States' number one international bogeyman. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has suggested overthrowing the regime. The CIA wants to spend $4 million on propaganda to strangle Iran.

Since the 1953 CIA overthrow of Iran's nationalist prime minister, Mohammad Massadeq, Iranians have felt that all evil emanates from Washington. President Clinton's ban on Conoco's deal to develop two of Iran's Persian Gulf oil fields, and US pressure on Russia and China to rescind contracts with Tehran to develop nuclear power plants, feed this anti-US sentiment in Iran.

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Germany is Iran's largest trading partner. Japan, Italy, Britain, and France are main suppliers and clients. Under US pressure, Japan announced last month it would reconsider a $450 million loan to Iran to build a hydroelectric plant. Tehran hoped the Japanese loan would allow foreign lending, on hold since last year when Iran defaulted on debt payments and rescheduled $8 billion in loans. The US still holds $11 billion in Iranian assets.

Ironically, Iran and the US need each other; Iran for funds, and the US for political reasons.

The trade ban, the strain of revolutionary upheaval, and the war with Iraq have harmed Iranians. Despite the revolution, in Iran as in the former Soviet Union and Mao's China, corruption creates instability.

Seeing this, the US should change its policy from coercion to cooperation. It should remove trade sanctions and use its influence to help Iran get loans.

The US must rethink its policy toward Iran after the cold war. Rapprochement with Tehran would enable Washington to understand a complex revolution the media has wrapped in cliches. It would provide access that isolation precludes. The French, Germans, Russians, and Japanese have learned this. If they, more threatened by nearby revolutions, can deal with Tehran, so can the US.

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