The U.S. recently sent signals to Iran that are not as conflicting as they seem.
The Clinton administration recently announced that it will reject Mobil Corp.'s request to swap Caspian Sea crude oil with Iran, but, at the same time, also said that it would remove sanctions blocking U.S. food and medicine sales to Iran.
U.S.-Iranian relations have been strained for 20 years, and although they may be improving, changes are scarcely perceptible to those not wearing diplomatic monocles.
Mobil's request was logical and consistent with international oil industry practices. It proposed a year ago to deliver some of its Turkmenistan production to a refinery in northern Iran, in exchange for an equivalent quantity of Iranian crude delivered on the Persian Gulf.
It was a trade that made economic sense for both Mobil and Iran and was then permissible under U.S. sanctions laws against Iran.
But the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control rejected the swap. It explained the trade would conflict with U.S. strategic interests-which currently are focused on promoting a Caspian oil export pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey's Mediterranean coast, bypassing Russia.
Other reliefIt was no coincidence that, on the same day, the State Department announced that the U.S. would lift sanctions that had blocked the sale of food and medicine to Iran.
That announcement included Libya and Sudan. All three nations long had been on State's list of countries supporting international terrorism.
Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat said the action is "not targeted to send a signal to any particular country. It is part of our overall sanctions reform."
He said the action made sense because, "Sales of food, medicine, and other human necessities do not generally enhance a nation's military capacities or support terrorism."
Regarding Iran, Eizenstat said that, despite U.S. overtures, the administration has seen little change in Iran's position on key issues of disagreement.
ReportThe State Department sent another signal to Iran when it issued its annual report on international terrorism.
Although the report claimed that Iran still sponsors terrorist acts-mostly attacks against Iranian dissidents abroad-it dropped language in previous reports claiming Iran was the "most active state sponsor of terrorism."
The report also alleged Iraq and Sudan are sponsoring terrorist groups. Afghanistan did not make the list, but only because its militant Islamic government is recognized by just a few other countries.
The State Department said four other nations-Cuba, Libya, North Korea, and Syria-have not recently sponsored terrorist acts but continue to provide sanctuary or indirect support for terrorists.
Since the election of President Mohammed Khatami nearly 2 years ago signaled that Iran's government is moving toward the center, the Clinton administration taken a number of small steps toward better relations.
Perhaps the decision on the Mobil swap was one step backwards, but the administration also has taken two steps forward.
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