Future of U.S.-Iran relations could depend on 13 Jews

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WASHINGTON — The future of the Clinton administration's diplomatic dance with Tehran could depend on the fate of the 13 Jews who face execution in Iran.

President Clinton's overtures to Iran began two years ago when the Islamic Republic elected Mohammad Khatami, a relative moderate, as president.

Now, members of the U.S. Congress who are skeptics of that policy have put Iran on notice that the United States will exact a price if the Jews are convicted on charges of working as "Zionist spies."

On Thursday of last week, the House International Relations Committee passed a resolution urging the release of the Jews. The House will consider the resolution sometime this month.

The resolution, co-sponsored by more than 80 Congress members, calls for diplomatic pressure on Iran to secure the detainees' release and for the United States to maintain its current policy toward Iran until its human rights record improves.

The detainees — who are believed to include rabbis, teachers and leaders of the Isfahan and Shiraz Jewish communities in southwestern Iran — had been held for three months without being charged.

Last month, Iran announced the arrests and charged them with espionage, which resulted in an outcry from Jewish leaders who enlisted presidents, prime ministers, the Vatican and others to help secure their release.

Iran's foreign minister last week rejected calls for the release of 13 Jews, Tehran Radio reported.

"Requests for their release are not acceptable and are considered an insult to the authority of the Islamic Republic of Iran," Kamal Kharrazi said in a statement carried on the state-run radio.

Their conditions have slightly improved, however. The detainees were allowed to call their families Tuesday of last week. The prisoners reportedly also received a delivery of kosher food.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is among those politicians taking a vocal stand against Iran.

"Should these innocents be mistreated, Iran will pay a price for many years to come," he said. "Should they be executed, Iran will slip back into pariah status for decades — which means no loans, no trade, no international respect."

Still, real questions remain about what impact U.S. policy toward Iran will have on the regime's policies.

"If we shine the light of world opinion on these 13 hostages, then neither France nor any other Western country will want to invest in Iran or provide them with oil technology," said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Woodland Hills).

But just what is the world going to do?

America's allies do not appear to be willing to stake their relations with Iran on the situation of the 13 Jews.

Leaders of more than a dozen countries, some with diplomatic relations with Iran, have voiced concern over the arrests and called for the prisoners' release. But business deals continue unfettered.

European states have shown no signs of slowing their efforts to improve relations with Iran, a process that began last year when Iranian clerics lifted an order to assassinate author Salman Rushdie.

Since the arrests of the Iranian Jews became public last month, the following signs of rapprochement with Iran have occurred:

*A delegation of business executives from England reportedly traveled to Iran seeking new investment opportunities.

*Norway announced plans to lift export curbs and to send an ambassador to Tehran later this summer.

*Japan announced plans to lift a ban on loans and send its foreign minister there later this summer.

*The French energy giant Total continues to develop crucial Iranian gas and oil fields.

For years the United States has tried in vain to isolate Iran.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the United States has maintained stiff economic sanctions against Iran.

Under U.S. law, Iran is considered a state sponsor of terrorism and until recently was known officially as a "rogue" state.

But following Khatami's election, the United States adopted a more conciliatory tone as it waited to see if Iran's policies changed to match the president's rhetoric.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright laid out a "road map" last year to improve relations between Washington and Tehran.

Albright went out of her way to call Iran by its preferred name — the Islamic Republic of Iran — and praised Khatami, who she said "publicly denounced terrorism and condemned the killing of innocent Israelis."

But since the arrest of the Iranian Jews, Clinton administration officials are publicly criticizing Iran.

The arrests are "unacceptable," Albright said recently, adding that the United States views the matter "with great concern."

Yet while administration officials have used strong language to criticize the arrests, the administration has not gone as far as members of Congress in linking future relations with Iran.

In recent years, Congress has passed legislation banning U.S. firms from bidding on contracts in Iran and imposing restrictions on overseas business that have lucrative deals with Tehran.

To be sure, Iran is already beginning to feel some financial pressure.

The World Bank last month reportedly put on hold preparations to provide $200 million in loans to Iran to protest Tehran's arrest of the 13 Jews. World Bank officials postponed indefinitely a trip to Tehran to discuss the loans for sewer and health care projects.

Last year, the World Bank approved some $720 million in loans to Iran.

But if other countries continue to pursue warmer diplomatic and fiscal relations with Iran, does U.S. policy matter?

Not really, according to Middle East analysts.

"The American threats are of some utility but more important is what the Europeans do," said Daniel Pipes, the editor of Middle East Quarterly.

"The United States looms large in terms of ideology and myth in Iran but is rather small in practical matters," he said, citing the low level of trade compared to Europe's.

But if Iran needs American humanitarian aid, Congress and the Clinton administration might have some leverage.

Although no direct U.S. aid reaches Iran, the Clinton administration earlier this year approved limited humanitarian assistance, including American grain.

Last month, Iran reported more than $1 billion in crop losses as a result of one of the worst droughts to hit the area this century.

Schumer said he would seek to condition any future grain sales on the Jews' fate.

"We have to take a hard line. We have to say, 'You have to at least show you can have some modicum of civility,'" he said.

"If Khatami can't deliver on this issue, than what is his reform movement about in the first place?"