News Analysis: Clintons stance regarding Iran…unsettling to Jews, Congress

The criticism comes in the wake of President Clinton's increasing reliance on diplomacy rather than sanctions aimed at curtailing Iran's development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

The administration has faced "steep obstacles" in its efforts to curb Iranian weapons development, including a lack of cooperation from European allies and considerations about bilateral relations between the United States and Russia, said Jason Isaacson, director of the American Jewish Committee's Washington office.

"All that is understood," Isaacson said. "But there must be principles that you maintain regardless of the difficulty, and I would hope that non-proliferation in inherently unstable regions is one of those principles."

U.S. and Israeli intelligence reports have concluded that Iran is close to developing the ability to launch ballistic missiles equipped with chemical, biological or nuclear warheads that would be capable of reaching Israel and other states in the Middle East.

When visiting the United States earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the world should be as worried about the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear weapon as it was with India's nuclear tests.

In Washington, Congress has been urging the administration to sanction foreign firms that are helping Iran's weapons development program by transferring technology or providing hard cash investments in the Islamic republic's energy sector.

In a move welcomed by many American Jewish activists, the Senate voted 90 to 4 last week to impose sanctions on Russian companies that are exporting missile technology to Iran. The House adopted a similar measure last year in a voice vote.

But Clinton has promised to veto the bill, saying it would undermine efforts to address the issue with Russia through diplomatic channels. The administration told Congress last week that Russia had made progress in controlling exports of missile technology and needed more time to put a tough nuclear non-proliferation policy in place.

Lawmakers, however, have been highly critical of the administration's policy on missile and nuclear technology transfers. Sponsors of the measure said they were tired of waiting for Clinton's diplomatic approach to produce results. They also questioned whether the Russian government even has the capability to stop the exchange from occurring.

The bill's passage came just days after Clinton drew criticism for deciding to waive sanctions against European companies that are doing business with Iran.

A law known as the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, signed by Clinton in 1996, calls for punitive trade measures against companies investing in Iran's energy sector.

But after meeting with European leaders at the G-8 summit of industrialized nations, Clinton decided last week not to impose sanctions against the French company Total, Russian gas giant Gazprom and the Malaysian state oil company Petronas, all of which have entered into a $2 billion deal to develop an Iranian offshore gas field.

The European Union staunchly opposed any attempt to apply U.S. law to foreign companies, and Clinton agreed to waivers of the so-called ILSA sanctions in exchange for a pledge from E.U. countries to step up cooperation against terrorism and tighten controls to prevent Iran from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. A number of lawmakers and Jewish officials say that, taken together, the Clinton administration's lack of progress on the Russian front and reluctance to follow through with the ILSA sanctions underscores the administration's poor record on Iranian containment.

The concern over Russia stems from reports that Russian scientists and engineers have been helping develop the engine and guidance system of an Iranian missile and that the Russian space agency provided wind tunnel testing for the rocket fuselage.

Some experts believe the damage may have already been done — that Iran may have acquired from foreign sources the requisite technology and it now may just be a matter of piecing everything together.

American and Israeli intelligence reports indicate that, by the end of 1999, Iran will test a prototype medium-range ballistic missile capable of carrying chemical, biological or nuclear weapons to a range of 1,000 miles.

The legislation adopted by Congress last week would require the president to submit a report to Congress identifying the companies, research institutes or other entities where there was "credible evidence" that technology was transferred to Iran to aid in ballistic missile development.

It would deny them arms export licenses and eliminate all U.S. assistance for two years. The president would be allowed to waive sanctions for reasons of national security.

The bill is aimed at Russia, but would punish any foreign business interests believed to be helping Iran develop ballistic missiles.

While some supporters of the measure view sanctions as the most potent weapon the U.S. has at its disposal in attempting to curb cooperation with Iran, others see a broader approach as essential.

A new report by the American Jewish Committee regarding Russian-Iranian cooperation states that while sanctions "would make clearer U.S. resolve to block proliferation and inflict some costs," they "are unlikely to bite hard enough to change Russian policy by themselves."

Instead, the report urges the United States to offer more positive incentives to promote different policies by the Russian government and Russian firms.

"American policy with respect to Russian-Iranian nuclear and missile cooperation needs to be modified to include both bigger `sticks' and bigger `carrots,'" the report states. "Only a more dynamic mix of incentives and disincentives will be sufficient to address the current situation."