WHO BANKROLLS Iran's worldwide campaign of terror? How does it pay for its domestic regime of repression, torture, and state murder? Whence comes the money to fund its stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons and its crash program to build nuclear bombs? Where do the mullahs find an investor willing to underwrite their bloody drive to export Islamic revolution across the Middle East?
You can locate the answer on any map of the world. Just look for the big country between Mexico and Canada. It is grotesque but true: The United States, more than any other source, supplies the wherewithal that the butchers of Tehran use to sustain their homicidal jihad against the West.
Blowing up US Marines, hijacking airliners, acquiring Scud missiles from North Korea, putting a bounty on the head of Salman Rushdie, detonating car bombs in Argentina, hunting down and killing Iranian dissidents in Europe, running terrorist training camps in Sudan, persecuting religious minorities, promoting fundamentalist Muslim sedition in Egypt and Algeria, killing Jews, sponsoring Hamas and Hezbollah, oppressing women -- these things don't come cheap. They cost money. And money depends on customers.
Fortunately for Iran -- and fatally for its victims -- there are customers aplenty. American customers above all.
US oil companies in 1994 purchased nearly a third of Iran's oil exports, pumping $4.2 billion into the mullahs' treasury. Add to that more than $700 million worth of computers, engineering supplies, electronic components, helicopters, and other sophisticated technology sold to Iran by American corporations last year, and the total volume of US-Iranian trade reached nearly $5 billion. The United States, the country Iran's rulers abominate above all others, is now Iran's No. 1 trade partner.
There is no mystery about Iran's willingness to do business with the "Great Satan" it hates so violently. Like the Bolsheviks, Iran is happy to let Americans supply the rope that will be used to hang them. Or in this case, to let Apple and Hewlett-Packard supply the computers, to let Chrysler build the Jeep plant, to let Motorola export the hard discs, to let Boeing sell the jetliners.
And Iran is not merely happy but desperate to sell the lion's share of its oil to Exxon, Texaco, Mobil, and other US companies. Iran's economy is in extremis. Inflation is running at an estimated 70 percent, 15 million workers are unemployed, and incomes are so low -- a fraction of what they were before Khomeini's revolution -- that more than 60 percent of Iranians now live below the poverty line. Tehran's short-term debt is massive, its credit worthiness in tatters, and its shortage of hard currency acute. The tormented people of Iran are sick of the despotic clerics who make their lives hell. Already a few riots have broken out. If it were not for Exxon's dollars, the regime might collapse tomorrow.
So the mystery isn't why Iran does business with US corporations. It is why US corporations do business with Iran.
Because they find it profitable? Because if they didn't, others would? Try explaining that to the widow whose hostage-husband never came home from Beirut. Explain it to the Israeli parents whose children were blown to pieces as they waited for a bus. Explain it to the tortured inmates at Tehran's Evin Prison.
Corporations, like all human associations, are answerable for the consequences of their actions. Exxon and the other companies transfused $4.2 billion into Iran's government last year; Iran's government last year used that money to murder scores of human beings. Exxon is an accessory to their deaths. Its dollars subsidized those atrocities.
Do we care? Or does Exxon earn our contempt and provoke our outrage only when its tanker spills oil in Prince William Sound and some birds and fish get killed?
When US officials discuss Iran, they mince no words. Secretary of State Warren Christopher calls it "an outlaw state" that "sows terror and subversion across the entire Arab world." President Clinton's senior adviser on Near East affairs labels Iran "the foremost state sponsor of terror and assassination across the globe." House Speaker Newt Gingrich calls for a US policy "designed to force the replacement of the current regime in Iran."
Tough talk -- and hollow. It is backed up by nothing. The United States should be forcing Iran to its knees. Washington should be doing everything it can think of short of military invasion to crush the Islamic dictators -- from supporting the Iranian resistance movement to grounding Iran's airline to shutting off its access to credit to declaring its oil illegal contraband.
Instead, we proceed with business as usual. We cluck about Iran's global crimes but preserve a perfect silence about Iran's global markets. Our hypocrisy is deafening.
Twenty years ago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn decried "that burning greed for profit that goes beyond all reason, all self-control, all conscience." His words should be chiseled in the lobby of every corporate headquarters in America. Profits are not the most important thing in the world, not even in the world of commerce. Americans' refusal to learn that lesson helps keep the butchers of Tehran in business.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)