In a major overture to Iran, the United States Friday said it would ease sanctions on non-oil Iranian exports and promised steps toward the return of assets frozen since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made the overture in a speech before a private non-profit group in Washington that seeks to promote better ties with Iran. RFE/RL's Lisa McAdams reports:
Washington, 20 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials have long expressed a desire to begin a political dialogue with Tehran. In turn, Iranian officials have long insisted that Washington first address some of their grievances, with economic sanctions and frozen assets topping the list.
The stalemate took a turn on Friday, when U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright extended a positive overture to Iran, aimed at ending two decades of hostility between the two nations. Addressing the American-Iranian Council in Washington, Albright announced the easing of sanctions on Iran's non-oil exports:
"Today, I am announcing a step that will allow 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 is also designed to show the millions of Iranian craftsmen, farmers, and fishermen who work in these industries, and the Iranian people as a whole, that the United States bears them no ill will."
Albright also pledged to take steps toward the returning of Iranian assets frozen since the 1979 revolution, and to make it easier for Iranian academics and athletes to visit the United States.
The U.S. gestures follow a win by reformers in Iran's parliamentary elections last month, which shifted the balance of power away from hardliners, who continue to call the United States the "Great Satan."
Albright said the points made and concrete measures announced reflect the United States' desire to advance common interests through improved relations with Iran. At the same time, she said Washington remained "realistic" about those prospects:
"We (still) have very basic concerns on the issues of proliferation, terrorism, and lack of support for the Middle East peace process, and we haven't seen positive action on those foreign policy issues from them. And while what I have said is that we would be prepared for diplomatic discussions, a fully normal relationship has a whole host of aspects to it, and those are obviously the kinds of things we're going to be talking about."
Albright added that a mature relationship cannot be built on "carpets and grain alone," but she stressed that the "direction" of the relationship was more important than the pace. That, she said, would be up to Tehran.
She said the United States is willing to either proceed patiently, on a step-by-step basis, or to move very rapidly, if Tehran so desires. The easing of sanctions does not cover 1995 restrictions -- extended earlier this week -- on Iran's top exports, oil and gas. It is estimated they account for some 85 percent of Iran's foreign exchange.
Friday's announcement came as little surprise to many in Washington, who'd been expecting it for some days. But there was an element of the unusual in Albright's acknowledgement of "short-sightedness" in some previous U.S. policies toward Iran.
"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 (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein."
Albright also expressed regrets about the involvement of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in the 1953 coup that swept Iran's popular Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh from power and restored the monarchy. The secretary said the coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development and that it was "easy to see" why many Iranians continue to resent intervention by America in their internal affairs.
"Neither Iran, nor we, can forget the past; it has scarred us both," Albright said.
But she said she also believed there were no obstacles that wise and confident leadership could not remove.
Albright was asked later, in a briefing with reporters, what common interests the United States would like to pursue with Iran. She said the two shared a stake in the future stability of the Gulf region, especially in preventing further Iraqi aggression.
She also cited common interests in encouraging stable relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, regional economic development, and in halting the flow of illegal narcotics exported from Afghanistan.
Several hours after the U.S. overture was announced, Albright noted that the first, initial reactions from Tehran were positive. But she said the United States had not been expecting any kind of rapid response toward bringing down what Iranian President Mohammed Khatami has referred to as the "wall of mistrust" between the two countries.