Conoco's decision this week to cancel a potentially lucrative oil deal with Iran bodes well for American business and American politics.
A Houston based subsidiary of the Du Pont corporation, Conoco won a contract with the Iranian government to develop two off-shore oil fields in the Persian Gulf in a deal reputedly worth approximately one billion dollars.
No sooner had Conoco announced the contract than voices of protest mounted, both in the Clinton Administration and in the Du Pont corporation itself. While Conoco's deal did not represent a violation of American law (the oil from the fields was not to be brought into the United States) it did constitute a gross violation of the spirit' of American policy Vis-a-vis the Islamic regime in Iran.
The Clinton Administration's opposition to the deal was intense, culminating in the president's decision to employ the somewhat obscure International Emergency Economic Power Act to challenge its legality.
The White House's vigor on this matter was justified if a bit extraordinary. Iran is undoubtedly the single largest threat to the Middle East's regional stability. In addition to its tireless campaign to produce weapons of mass-destruction, Iran sponsors Islamist terror worldwide, most notably of last in Algeria and the West Bank.
The administration could not simply stay silent on this matter. It would have been politically--not to say morally--untenable for the White House to pursue a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, all the while turning a blind eye to American investment in the one country most adamantly opposed to that peace.
The Clinton administration's offensive (its show of force this past week was nothing less) showed considerable fortitude in spite of an ostensible inconsistency. Why should Iran prove the exception to the 'rule' that currently prevails in American foreign policy making? That rule, most evident in American dealings with China, essentially states that the way to topple an authoritarian regime is through its markets. Western-style democracies and respect for human rights grow out of thriving western style economies, runs this logic.
Although it is still unclear whether this rule actually obtains, it is noteworthy that the White House has acknowledged that there are limits to its application. Iran belongs to a select group of countries that are, in the words of an administration official quoted in this week's New York Times, "beyond the pale."
Two reasons for this distinction leap to mind. First, Iran, unlike China, does not represent a vast market. We have no reason to compromise our standards if there is no profit to be reaped. Second, Iran's sponsorship of international terrorism is not analogous to China's disregard for human rights. The latter materially threatens only the Chinese; the former, the entire world.
The questions raised by a foreign policy issue like the Conoco deal do not admit of tidy solutions. Faced with the option of making an important (if symbolic) point or maintaining a stubbornly consistent foreign policy vis-a-vis all authoritarian regimes, the Clinton Administration chose the former. It was a correct decision.
The Clinton White House is often criticized for its inability to articulate lucid, precise foreign policy objectives that can be applied to the entire gamut of negging international conflicts. Yet that criticism fails to acknowledge that in the post-Cold War era, it is utterly impossible to define foreign policy in terms of inviolate formulas.
It is not difficult to tick off a long list of the Clinton Adminitration's foreign policy snafus. Yet it is meaningless to criticize the adminstration's strategies if we cannot also acknowledge foreign policy successes.
The White House's handling of the Conoco affair is an example of one such success. The administration displayed fortitude and foresight in blocking a deal that would have compromised vital American intersts at home and abroad. If only the policy wars were as easy as the battles.
Samuel J. Rascoff's column appears on alternate Fridays.
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