and Iran - Daring to Be Friends?
by Madeleine Albright, U.S. Secretary of State
Editor: It seems the U.S. government
is beginning to make overtures to Iran in an attempt to rebuild
the political and economic relationships that were severed in
1979 when the American Embassy diplomats were held hostage in
Tehran for nearly one year.
Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright outlined
the American government's new stance on U.S.-Iranian relationships.
Her comments chart a new openness towards Iran that is likely
to have a profound effect, not only on Iran, but on the entire
region, including Azerbaijan.
Photo: Madeleine Albright,
U.S. Secretary of State
In her speech, she announced the lifting of the U.S. embargo
on the import of Iran's carpets, caviar and pistachios. But numerous
analysts have suggested that her speech has far broader and long-range
implications than these products and may eventually lead to the
lifting of economic sanctions.
The official position that the U.S. held previously against Iran
has meant that Azerbaijan could not seriously consider alternate
pipeline routes through Iran, since American companies in Azerbaijan
were prohibited by law from signing multi-million-dollar contracts
with Iran. However, oil swaps with Iran may now gradually become
a viable option and may preclude the need to build long, expensive
pipelines such as the proposed Baku-Jeyhan route to Turkey.
We include Albright's
speech here in its entirety, as we think it signifies the most
consequential development in the history of relations between
the U.S. and Iran for the past two decades.
Photo: Azerbaijani President
Heydar Aliyev with U.S. President Clinton in Washington D.C.,
February 15, 2000. Rauf Huseinov interpreted.
Note that this is the first time that the U.S. has publicly admitted
to interfering in the internal affairs of Iran. Albright mentions
three grievances that Iran has held against the U.S. beginning
with (1) the CIA-led coup d'etat in 1953, which resulted in the
ousting of Iran's popular and democratic Prime Minister, Dr.
Mohammad Mosadegh, who succeeded in nationalizing Iran's oil
industry, (2) the support of the Shah's authoritarian regime
(1950s-1970s) and (3) the ineffective role by the U.S. in preventing
Saddam Hossein's aggression against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war
The alleged impetus for re-examining the relationship, according
to Albright, came from the remarkable changes that are taking
place in the internal affairs of Iran as evidenced by the last
three elections, which were remarkably democratic. Specifically,
she implied (1) the election of Mohammad Khatami as President
in 1997, (2) the Municipality elections of 1999 and (3) the elections
in Parliament that took place this year. On all three occasions,
reformist candidates won landslide victories over the Islamic
fundamentalist extremists who have been dominating Iranian politics
since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Albright mentioned that the U.S. looks forward to closer relations
and is ready to move at a pace - either slowly or quickly - that
best satisfies Tehran.
She challenged Iran to play a more positive role in the solution
of the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict (in the past, Iran aided
As could be expected, Tehran's response to Washington's gesture
has been mixed. On the one hand, the announcement was cautiously
welcomed by reformist democrats, while extreme hardliners have
used it to fan the flames of the ongoing internal struggle for
Madeleine Albright's address to the American-Iranian Council
in Washington, D.C. on March 17, 2000
Iran is one of the world's oldest continuing civilizations. It
has one of the globe's richest and most diverse cultures, and
its territory covers half the coastline of the [Persian] Gulf
on one side of the Straits of Hormuz, through which much of the
world's petroleum commerce moves. It borders the Caspian Sea,
the Caucasus, and Central and South Asia, where a great deal
of the world's illegal narcotics are produced, [where] several
major terrorist groups are based, and [where] huge reserves of
oil and gas are just beginning to be tapped. And Iran is currently
chairing the organization of the Islamic Conference.
There is no question that Iran's future direction will play a
pivotal role in the economic and security affairs of what much
of the world reasonably considers the center of the world.
New Year - New
So I welcome this opportunity to come to discuss relations between
the United States and Iran. It is appropriate, I hope, to do
so in anticipation both of the Iranian New Year [Noruz, March
20] and the beginning of Spring. I want to begin by wishing all
Iranian-Americans a "Happy New Year", "Aid-e shoma
Mobarak" (Applause) ["Congratulations for the New Year"].
I extend the same wishes to Iranians overseas.
Spring is the season of hope and renewal, of planting the seeds
for new crops. And my hope is that both in Iran and the United
States, we can plant the seeds now for a new and better relationship
in years to come.
That is precisely the prospect I would like to discuss with you
today. President Clinton especially asked me to come to this
group to have this discussion with you. It is no secret that,
for two decades, most Americans have viewed Iran primarily through
the prism of the U.S. Embassy takeover in 1979, accompanied as
it was by the taking of hostages, hateful rhetoric and the burning
of the U.S. flag. Through the years, this grim view has been
reinforced by the Iranian government's repression at home and
its support for terrorism abroad; by its assistance to groups
violently opposed to the Middle East peace process; and by its
effort to develop nuclear weapons capability.
America's response has been a policy of isolation and containment.
We took Iranian leaders at their word - that they viewed America
as an enemy. And in response we had to treat Iran as a threat.
Evidence of Change
However, after the election of President Khatami in 1997, we
began to adjust the lens through which we viewed Iran. Although
Iran's objectionable external policies remain fairly constant,
the political and social dynamics inside Iran were quite clearly
beginning to change.
In response, President Clinton and I welcomed the new Iranian
President's call for a dialogue between our people. We encouraged
academic, cultural and athletic exchange. We updated our advisory
for Americans wishing to travel to Iran. We reiterated our willingness
to engage in officially authorized discussions with Iran regarding
each others' principal concerns, and said we would monitor future
developments in that country closely, which is what we have done.
Now we have concluded the time is right to broaden our perspective
Because the trends that were becoming evident inside Iran are
plainly gathering steam, the country's young are spearheading
a movement aimed at a more open society and a more flexible approach
to the world.
Iran's women have made themselves among the most politically
active and empowered in the region. Budding entrepreneurs are
eager to establish winning connections overseas. Respected clerics
speak increasingly about the compatibility of reverence and freedom,
modernity and Islam. An increasingly competent press is emerging
despite attempts to muzzle it. And Iran has experienced not one,
but three, increasingly democratic rounds of elections in as
Not surprisingly, these developments have been stubbornly opposed
in some corners, and the process they have set in motion is far
from complete. Harsh punishments are still meted out for various
kinds of dissent. Religious persecution continues against the
Baha'is and also against some Iranians who have converted to
And governments around the world, including our own, have expressed
concerns about the need to ensure due process for 13 Iranian
Jews, who were detained for more than a year without official
charge, and are now scheduled for trial next month. We look to
the procedures and the results of this trial as one of the barometers
of U.S.-Iran relations.
Moreover, in the fall of 1998, several prominent writers and
publishers were murdered, apparently by rogue elements in Iran's
security forces. And just this past weekend, a prominent editor
and advisor to President Khatami was gravely wounded in an assassination
As in any diverse society, there are many currents swirling about
in Iran. Some are driving the country forward; others are holding
it back. Despite the trend towards democracy, control over the
military, judiciary, courts and police remains in unelected hands,
and the elements of its foreign policy, about which we are most
concerned, have not improved. But the momentum in the direction
of internal reform, freedom and openness is growing stronger.
More and more Iranians are unafraid to agree with President Khatami's
assessment of 15 months ago, and I quote, "Freedom and diversity
of thought do not threaten the society's security," he said.
"Rather, limiting freedom does so. Criticizing the government
and state organizations at any level is not detrimental to the
system. On the contrary, it is necessary."
The democratic winds in Iran are so refreshing, and many of the
ideas espoused by its leaders, so encouraging. There is a risk
we will assume too much. In truth, it is too early to know precisely
where the democratic trends will lead. Certainly the primary
impetus for change is not ideology, but pragmatism. Iranians
want a better life. They want broader social freedom, greater
government accountability and wider prosperity. Despite reviving
oil prices, Iran's economy remains hobbled by inefficiency, corruption
and excessive state control. Due in part to demographic factors,
unemployment is higher and the per capita income lower than 20
The "bottom line" is that Iran is evolving on its own
terms and will continue to do so. Iranian democracy, if it blossoms
further, is sure to have its own distinctive features consistent
with the country's traditions and culture. And like any dramatic
and political and social evolution, it will go forward at its
own speed on a timetable Iranians set for themselves.
The question we face is how to respond to all this. On the people-to-people
level, the answer is not difficult. Americans should continue
to reach out. We have much to learn from Iranians, and Iranians
from us. We should work to expand and broaden our exchanges.
We should engage Iranian academics and leaders in civil society
on issues of mutual interest. And, of course, we should strive
even more energetically to develop our soccer skills [Laughter
- reference to World Cup Soccer Games in 1998 when Iran beat
The challenge of how to respond to Iran on the official level
is more complex and requires a discussion not only of our present
perception and future hopes but also of the somewhat tumultuous
At their best, our relations with Iran have been marked by warm
bonds of personal friendship. Over the years, thousands of American
teachers, health care workers, Peace Corps volunteers and others
have contributed their energy and goodwill to improving the lives
and well-being of the Iranian people.
As is evident in this room, Iranians have enriched the United
States as well. Nearly a million Iranian-Americans have made
our country their home. Many other Iranians have studied here
before returning to apply their knowledge in their native land.
In fact, some were among my best students when I taught at Georgetown
University's School of Foreign Service.
It's not surprising, then, that there is much common ground between
our two peoples. Both are idealistic, proud, family-oriented,
spiritually aware and fiercely opposed to foreign domination.
But that common ground has sometimes been shaken by other factors.
In 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating
the overthrow of Iran's popular Prime Minister, Mohammed Mosadegh.
The Eisenhower Administration believed its actions were justified
for strategic reasons, but the coup was clearly a setback for
Iran's political development. And it is easy to see now why many
Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their
Moreover, during the next quarter century, the United States
and the West gave sustained backing to the Shah's regime. Although
it did much to develop the country economically, the Shah's government
also brutally repressed political dissent.
As President Clinton has said, the United States must bear its
fair share of responsibility for the problems that have arisen
in U.S.-Iranian relations.
Even in more recent years, aspects of U.S. policy towards Iraq
during its conflict with Iran appear now to have been regrettably
shortsighted, especially in light of our subsequent experiences
with Saddam Hussein.
However, we have our own list of grievances, and they are serious.
The Embassy takeover  was a disgraceful breach of Iran's
international responsibility and the trauma for the hostages
and their families and for all of us. Innocent Americans and
friends of America have been murdered by terrorist groups that
are supported by the Iranian government.
In fact, Congress is now considering legislation that would mandate
the attachment of Iranian diplomatic and other assets as compensation
for acts of terrorism committed against American citizens.
We are working with Congress to find a solution that will satisfy
the demands of justice without setting a precedent that could
endanger vital U.S. interests in the treatment of diplomatic
or other property, or that would destroy prospects for a successful
dialogue with Iran.
Indeed, we believe that the best hope for avoiding similar tragedies
in the future is to encourage change in Iran's policies, and
to work in a mutual and balanced way to narrow differences between
our two countries. Neither Iran, nor we, can forget the past.
It has scarred us both.
But the question both countries now face is whether to allow
the past to freeze the future or to find a way to plant the seeds
of a new relationship that will enable us to harvest shared advantages
in years to come, not more tragedies. Certainly, in our view,
there are no obstacles that wise and competent leadership cannot
As some Iranians have pointed out, the United States has cordial
relations with a number of countries that are less democratic
than Iran. Moreover, we have no intention or desire to interfere
in the country's internal affairs. We recognize that Islam is
central to Iran's cultural heritage and perceive no inherent
conflict between Islam and the United States.
Moreover, we see a growing number of areas of common interest.
For example, we both have a stake in the future stability and
peace in the Gulf. Iran lives in a dangerous neighborhood. We
welcome efforts to make it less dangerous and would encourage
regional discussions aimed at reducing tensions and building
Both our countries have fought conflicts initiated by Iraq's
lawless regime; both have a stake in preventing further Iraqi
aggression. We also share concerns about instability and illegal
narcotics being exported from Afghanistan. Iran is paying a high
price for the ongoing conflict there.
It has long been host to as many as two million refugees from
the Afghan's civil war. And thousands of Iranians have been killed
in the fight against drug traffickers. Moreover, Iran is now
a world leader in the quantity of illegal drugs annually seized.
This is one area where increased U.S.-Iranian cooperation clearly
makes sense for both countries.
But there are numerous other areas of potential common interest,
such as encouraging stable relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan,
regional economic development, the protection of historic cultural
sites and preserving the environment.
So the possibility of a more normal and mutually productive relationship
is there. But it will not happen unless Iran continues to broaden
its perspective of America just as we continue to broaden our
view of Iran.
When we oppose terrorism and [nuclear] proliferation, the norms
we uphold are not narrowly American, they are global. These standards
are designed to safeguard law-abiding people in all countries
and reflect obligations that most nations, including Iran, have
When we strive to support progress towards a Middle East Peace,
we serve the interests and embrace the aspirations of tens of
millions of people, Arab and Israeli alike, of all backgrounds
When we talk about human rights, we're not trying to impose our
values. We are affirming the principles enshrined in the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights that people everywhere are entitled
to basic freedoms of religion, expression and equal protection
under the law.
And when we talk about the value of an official dialogue with
Iran, we have no secret agenda, nor do we attach any conditions.
We are motivated solely by a realistic interest in taking this
relationship to a higher level so that we may use diplomacy to
solve problems and benefit the people of both countries.
In recent months, Iranian leaders have talked about their nation's
policy of détente. And Foreign Minister Kharazi said not
long ago that "Iran is ready to act as an anchor of stability
for resolving regional problems and crises."
The United States recognizes Iran's importance in the Gulf, and
we've worked hard in the past to improve difficult relationships
with many other countries - whether the approach used has been
called détente or principle engagements or constructive
dialogue or something else.
Bringing Down the
"Wall of Mistrust"
We are open to such a policy now. We want to work together with
Iran to bring down what President Khatami refers to as "the
wall of mistrust."
For that to happen, we must be willing to deal directly with
each other as two proud and independent nations and address on
a mutual basis the issues that have been keeping us apart.
As a step towards bringing down that wall of mistrust, I want
today to discuss the question of economic sanctions. The United
States imposed sanctions against Iran because of our concerns
about [nuclear] proliferation, and because the authorities exercising
control in Tehran financed and supported terrorist groups, including
those violently opposed to the Middle East peace process.
To date, the political developments in Iran have not caused its
military to cease its determined effort to acquire technology,
materials and assistance needed to develop nuclear weapons, nor
have those developments caused Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps
or its Ministry of Intelligence and Security to get out of the
terrorism business. Until these policies change, fully normal
ties between our governments will not be possible, and our principal
sanctions will remain.
Purpose of Sanctions
The purpose of our sanctions, however, is to spur changes in
policy. They are not an end in themselves, nor do they seek to
target innocent civilians.
And so for this reason, last year I authorized the sale of spare
parts needed to ensure the safety of civilian passenger aircraft
previously sold to Iran, aircraft often used by Iranian-Americans
transiting to or from that country. And President Clinton eased
restrictions on the export of food, medicine and medical equipment
to sanctioned countries including Iran. This means that Iran
can purchase products such as corn and wheat from America.
And today, I am announcing a step that will enable Americans
to purchase and import carpets and food products such as dried
fruits, nuts and caviar from Iran.
This step is a logical extension of the adjustments we made last
year. It also is designed to show the millions of Iranian craftsmen,
farmers and fisherman who work in these industries, and the Iranian
people as a whole, that the United States bears no ill will.
Second, the United States will explore ways to remove unnecessary
impediments to increase contact between American and Iranian
scholars, professional artists, athletes and non-governmental
organizations. We believe this will serve to deepen bonds of
mutual understanding and trust.
Third, the United States is prepared to increase efforts with
Iran aimed at eventually concluding a global settlement of outstanding
legal claims between our two countries.
This is not simply a matter of unfreezing assets. After the fall
of the Shah, the United States and Iran agreed on a process to
resolve existing claims through an arbitrating tribunal in The
Hague. In 1981, the vast majority of Iranian assets seized during
the hostage crisis were returned to Iran. Since then, nearly
all private claims have been resolved through The Hague Tribunal
Our goal now is to settle the relatively few, but very substantial,
claims that are still outstanding between our two governments
at The Hague. And by so doing, to put this issue behind us once
and for all.
The points I've made and the concrete measures I have announced
today reflect our desire to advance our common interests through
improved relations with Iran. They respond to the broader perspective
merited by the democratic trends in that country, and our hope
that these internal changes will gradually produce external effects.
And that as Iranians grow more free, they will express their
freedom through actions and support of international law on behalf
of stability and peace.
I must emphasize, however, that in adopting a broader view of
events in Iran, we are not losing sight of the issues that have
long troubled us. We look toward Iran to truly fulfill its promises
to serve as an "anchor of stability," and to live up
to the pledges its leaders have made in such areas as [nuclear]
proliferation and opposition to terrorism.
We have no illusions that the United States and Iran will be
able to overcome decades of estrangement overnight. We can't
build a mature relationship on carpets and grain alone. But the
direction of our relations is more important than the pace. The
United States is willing either to proceed patiently, on a step-by-step
basis, or to move very rapidly if Iran indicates a desire and
commitment to do so.
Next Tuesday will mark the beginning of the New Year for Iran
and the beginning of Spring for us all. And it is true that for
everything under Heaven there is a season. Surely the time has
come for America and Iran to enter a new season in which mutual
trust may grow and a quality of warmth supplant the long, cold
winter of our mutual discontent.
For we must recognize that throughout the world, the great divide
today is no longer between East and West, or North and South;
nor is it between one civilization and another. The great divide
today is between people who are still ensnared by the perceptions
and prejudices of the past, and those who have freed themselves
to embrace the promise of the future.
This morning, on behalf of the government and the people of the
United States, I call upon Iran to join us in writing a new chapter
in our shared history. Let us be open about our differences and
strive to overcome them. Let us acknowledge our common interests
and strive to advance them. Let us think boldly about future
possibilities and strive to achieve them and, thereby, turn this
new year and season of hope into the reality of a safer and better
life for our two peoples.
To that mission I pledge my own best efforts this morning. And
I respectfully solicit the counsel and understanding and support
Thank you very much.
(8.1) Spring 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.
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