Congressman Bob Ney: A Voice of Reason on Iran

The U.S. Congress as a whole is generally negative toward Iran and prepared to resist any efforts to relax sanctions, or even ease tensions with Iran. There are a few members of Congress, however, who "question the policy of isolation and realize that the time is here to join the rest of the world by engaging Iran in constructive talks."

That quote is from an article Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) wrote for Middle East Insight magazine nearly a year ago. More recently, at a Middle East Institute-sponsored Capitol Hill seminar on Iran, Ney's legislative director, Maria Robinson, was the only one among five congressional staff member panelists who spoke in favor of reexamining U.S. policy toward Iran.

In an interview with the Washington Report, Ney said that his views have not changed, except that he would add that it is also time for Iran to take a step toward easing tensions with the U.S. For example, he said, if Iran were to indicate a willingness to receive a congressional delegation, he could guarantee that there would be no fewer than 15 members of Congress ready to go on short notice. He said that perhaps a way to begin would be to have an informal meeting, with no agenda, between members of Congress and members of Iran's Majlis, perhaps at a neutral site in Europe.

Ney became interested in Iran at a relatively early age, because his sister and her family had a 13-year-old Iranian boy living with them and attending school. By the time Ney graduated from college in 1976 he had already been involved in several Republican political campaigns, and he had also picked up the basics of the Farsi language. After a brief stint working in the administration of Ohio's then-Governor Jim Rhodes, Ney decided he wanted to do something different.

So he sold his car and in January 1978, at the age of 23, with a one-way plane ticket and $275 in his pocket, he flew to Iran. He knew no one and had no job, but in a short while he had moved to Shiraz and was holding four translating and teaching jobs, primarily at the Iran-America Society school.

It was not a particularly good time for an American to be in Iran. In March, the revolution erupted in earnest; in May the U.S. Consulate advised Americans to leave; and in July the school was closed down. So Ney left Iran in July 1978, after only six months in the country. But those six months left him with a lasting affection for the Iranian people.

Upon returning to the U.S., Ney re-entered politics, and in 1980 was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives. In 1984 he was appointed to the Ohio Senate, and subsequently was re-elected in 1984, 1988, and 1992.

In 1994 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Ohio's 18th district (covering 14 counties in eastern Ohio). He was subsequently re-elected in 1996 and 1998 and presently serves on the House Banking Committee, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and the House Administration Committee.

During his four years in Congress, Ney has not been outspoken on Middle East issues, but he has quietly withstood the pressures of the Israel lobby. For that reason he was in this magazine's "Hall of Fame" for his record on Middle East issues last year. So far this year, he has co-sponsored a concurrent resolution expressing the sense of Congress that Jonathan Pollard should not be released and should serve his full life sentence for treason. Ney also participated in the Capitol Hill luncheon for President Arafat, and he voted against the anti-Palestinian statehood resolution in March.

Ney has been outspoken in his opposition to the current U.S. policy of trying to isolate Iran. He acknowledges that when he first came to Congress he supported that policy and, in fact, voted for the Iran Libya Sanctions Act.

But since the election of moderate President Mohammad Khatami in Iran, Ney has urged increased U.S.-Iranian communication. For precedents he points out that the U.S. is engaging the Chinese government in dialogue, and maintained communications with the Soviet Union throughout the years of the Cold War.

Ney finds it incredible that the Clinton administration seems unable to recognize that rather than isolating Iran, U.S. policy has isolated the United States and has not achieved its objective of coercing Iran to change its behavior.

He agrees that sponsorship of terrorism, violation of human rights, and the buildup of military weaponry are serious subjects, but believes that they must be discussed with Iranian officials if they are to be resolved. He also points out that there are several issues that Iran would like to resolve with the U.S., such as the Iranian funds frozen by the U.S. government.

Ney finds silly the administration argument that there is no one in the Iranian government it can talk to because no one can speak for the whole government. He points out that to begin a dialog one does not need an official, formal, agenda-driven meeting. It was in this context that he suggested an informal meeting between the two countries' legislators in a neutral setting, with no agenda.

He is also impatient with the recent argument raised by AIPAC (and parroted by Israel's friends in Congress) to forestall official U.S. contacts with Iran, that making small, but positive, gestures toward the Khatami government will be counterproductive because Khatami's enemies can somehow use those gestures to bring down his government.

Ney says that such gestures as approving grain sales and the proposed oil-swap arrangement (which Ney calls a "win-win" situation for everyone), must continue to be made toward the Khatami government. However, he says, the conservative clerics should not be excluded, and gestures toward them should be made as well. As an example, Ney says, the U.S. might recognize Iran's Islamic government.

Asked about the current U.S. preoccupation with Iran's weapons of mass destruction program, in light of the known nuclear programs of India, Pakistan, and Israel, Ney said that he is firmly against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and against any unusual arms buildup programs.

However, he says, any efforts to reduce these programs must be multilateral, not unilateral. "It is hard to see how Congress can say that one country cannot have nuclear weapons if we don't say it to all the countries around them."

Finally, Ney dismisses the argument raised by some people that the U.S. cannot recognize Iran because Tehran does not recognize Israel. "We cannot base our foreign policy toward one country," he explains, "on that country's policy toward a third country." He said that when he visited Israel in January 1998, an Israeli minister raised the subject of Iran. Ney said that he responded by emphasizing the need to communicate, pointing out that Iran has no more reason to trust Israel than Israel has to trust Iran, and the only way to raise the level of trust is through dialog.

Shirl McArthur, a retired foreign service officer, is a senior consultant with Bruce Morgan Associates, an international research and consulting firm in the Washington, DC area.

Article first appeared in the July/August 1999 edition of the Washington Report On Middle East Affairs. Reprinted with permission.

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