Washington, 18 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has made a major overture to Iran, offering to start a process of mutual confidence-building measures with the aim of eventually normalizing relations between the two countries.
In a speech in New York last night (Wednesday) she said it is time for Iran and the United States to put the past behind them and focus on improving ties, even though a wide gap exists between them. "It is time to test possibilities for bridging this gap," Albright said.
But she made clear that lifting U.S. economic sanctions against Iran because of that country's support for terrorism and pursuit of other objectionable policies is not under consideration.
Albright said Iran is still committing serious human rights violations, and trying to develop nuclear weapons, as well as continuing to support terrorism.
The U.S. opposes these efforts and Albright said "accordingly, our economic policies, including with respect to the export pipelines for Caspian oil and gas, remain unchanged."
But she had few other negative comments on Iran. Albright stressed U.S. respect for Iran's sovereignty, recognizing its importance in the region and acknowledging changes in Iranian society reflected in the overwhelming vote for reformist President Mohammad Khatami in the May 1997 presidential election.
Albright noted that in response, the U.S. has simplified visa procedures for visiting Iranians, supports cultural and academic exchanges and is now ready, in her words "to explore further ways to build mutual confidence and avoid misunderstandings."
She invited Iran to consider what she called "parallel steps."
She said if the two countries can sustain a confidence-building process that addresses the concerns of both sides, the U.S. can envisage a very different relationship developing eventually into normal bilateral ties.
Albright put it this way: "as the wall of mistrust comes down, we can develop with the Islamic Republic when it is ready, a roadmap leading to normal relations."
The U.S. and Iran have had no diplomatic relations since 1980 when American diplomats were taken hostage by Iranian fundamentalist revolutionaries and held for more than a year.
The anti-American rhetoric in Tehran eased perceptibly after Khatami became president, and he signaled cautiously in a CNN television interview in January that relations could improve, calling for expanded ties between the American and Iranian peoples.
The U.S. welcomed the possibility of improvement but emphasized that the two governments should enter a dialogue to discuss their differences, and stipulated that Iran must renounce support of terrorism and cease opposition to the Middle East peace process.
However, U.S. officials said subsequently that several quiet attempts by Washington to thaw relations further were rebuffed in Teheran and there has been little movement since Khatami's January interview.
A State Department official who did not wish to be named said Wednesday that Albright's New York speech is the first, comprehensive, substantive U.S. policy statement reaching out to Iran.
"We are trying to spell out in much clearer terms what our views are on what is possible," he said, adding that "we are trying to signal clearly that there is more down the road, if we develop a parallel process."
Albright in her speech offered Iran a role in international peacekeeping efforts. She said the United Nations and a number of regional organizations and coalitions are countering threats to peace around the world.
In her words "this global network has grown largely without Iranian participation but Iran would be welcome if it is willing to make a constructive contribution."
Albright praised Iran's efforts in the United Nations to broker a lasting peace in Afghanistan and its treatment of more than two million Afghan and Iraqi refugees, as well as Iran's recent efforts to improve relations with its neighbors.
She said the U.S. "views these developments with interest, both with regard to the possibility of Iran assuming its rightful place in the world community and the chance for better bilateral ties."
In what hardly seemed like a coincidence, similar themes from a very different angle were sounded in Washington also yesterday by Iran's ambassador to the United Nations Hadi Nejad Hosseinian.
He said in a speech hours before Albright's address in New York that old Cold War thinking still prevails in U.S. policy towards Iran and "remains oblivious to change."
Hosseinian said "many American officials tend to view Iran and the region with a cold war mentality (resulting in) baseless allegations and futile projects against Iran," such as plans to beam what he called "Radio Free Iran" programs into the country.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is expected to begin broadcasting to Iran in the Farsi language later this year under a mandate of the U.S. Congress.
Hosseinian also criticized the U.S. economic sanctions banning foreign investment in Iran's energy sector.
He said U.S. efforts to exclude Iran from planned Caspian oil pipeline routes are unrealistic and damaging to the region as well as to Iran, hindering economic development of the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia.
But he too took note of positive signals in Washington, saying: "Iran is cognizant of an emerging positive tone calling for a change in official U.S. policy toward Iran. This needs to be substantiated by actions," he said.
Hosseinian said more time is needed for the U.S. to recognize today's reality in Iran. But he too held out hope of improving U.S.-Iranian ties, saying both sides need to be, in his words "patient and optimistic about the future."