US pariahs back in fold

THE UNITED States was due to relax sanctions against Iran, Libya and Sudan last night, an important step in its warming relationship with three countries once considered pariahs by Washington.

The moves come in response to heavy pressure from US business, especially agricultural exporters, for the easing of trade relations. "I believe the change came from a lot of pressure from ... agricultural senators who want to sell their wheat," a senior US official told Reuters. But there have also been political advances, justifying the moves towards relaxing tensions.

The election of Mohammad Khatami as President of Iran, bringing a moderate to power, has helped both countries to begin to overcome their legacy of hatred and mistrust going back to the Iranian revolution. Trade between the US and Iran has been banned since 1995.

Libya recently agreed to send two suspects in the Lockerbie bombing for trial in the Netherlands and, while relations between Washington and Tripoli could hardly be said to be cordial, there is some improvement. The US and Sudan have been carrying out secret talks to explore the possibility of improving political relations.

The US also has on its books sanctions that allow it to penalise overseas companies which invest in Iran or Libya and the issue has become a subject of great controversy with Europe. British, French and Italian oil companies all plan to invest in Iran, and this has sparked US oil companies to push the administration for an easier stance as they fear they may miss a deal.

US food trading companies welcomed the announcement. Niki Trading Co said it expected the first US grain shipments to Iran in the next month or two. "It's very clear it's in the US interest to take this step and stop losing markets to competitors," said Richard Bliss, Niki's president. "There are lots of US farmers waiting out there for international sales to help stay solvent."