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Iran Eases Import Restrictions in Overture to U.S.

By Jonathan Schwartz

TEHRAN, April 1, 2000 (DPA) - In a major overture to the U.S., the Iranian government offered on Saturday to let in a select category of U.S. foodstuff and household items, promised to work harder to settle financial claims and recognized grievances against Iran's U.S. policy since 1979.

The Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, in his first televised press conference on the U.S. since reformists won last February's parliamentary elections, said that he had been given the "green light" by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, to seek an opening to the U.S. "in line with Iran's national interests", and to break down the "wall of distrust" that has divided the two countries since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"I call on the U.S. to join 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," he told the Iranian people in a live TV broadcast.

Khatami's gestures are in response to increasingly frequent U.S. confessions of wrong-doing against Iran and pleas for opening government-to-government talks with Iran -- Washington's aim since Khatami won election in 1997 with a reformist agenda.

But in their initial reactions, U.S. officials said the speech had both positive and negative aspects.

The centerpiece of the initiative is ending 1981 import restrictions on U.S. products such as peanuts, peanut butter, portabello mushrooms, marshmellows, breakfast cereals, and waterbeds.

"Second, Iran will explore ways to remove unnecessary impediments to increased contacts between American and Iranian scholars, professionals, artists, athletes and non-governmental organizations," he added, saying that U.S. women for instance would be granted permission to travel without the mandatory Hijab or Islamic dress in the country.

"Third, Iran is prepared to increase efforts with the U.S. aimed at settlement of outstanding legal claims between our two countries," he said.

The claims settlement process, sometimes referred to as "unfreezing Iranian assets," takes place through a tribunal in The Hague. It includes reciprocal claims for diplomatic property and Iranian claims for weapons paid for by the deposed Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and never delivered.

"Neither the U.S., nor we, can forget the past," Khatami said. ``It has scarred us both, but especially Iran.''

In that vein, Khatami called the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 regrettable.

At the same time he also criticized the U.S. as a long time supporter of terrorism, recalling recent examples of support for the Afghan Taliban, Nicaraguan Contras, mining of Nicaragua's harbors, shootdown of an Iranian passenger jet, and air and missile strikes against Libya, Iraq, and the Sudan.

Khatami also called the U.S. "highly biased" in its approach to a lasting Mideast peacemaking, accusing it of double standards in its policy towards Arabs and Israelis, and therefore not aiming for what he called "true peace", but rather a "one-sided settlement in favor of one party".

The Iranian president also accused the U.S. as bent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction, recalling recent reports that the U.S. is modernizing thousands of its nuclear warheads, and blasting the U.S. Senate for not ratifying the nuclear test ban treaty.

James Foley, the U.S. state department spokesperson welcomed the easing of import restrictions and said Washington would respond by removing 384% import duties on Iranian pistachios.

But he criticized other aspects of the speech, saying that Khatami had not done enough to ensure rapid progress toward relations.

"These steps, important and refreshing as they may be, are insufficient to make a quick and drastic change in the state of affairs," he said.

"We all know that fancy mushrooms, corn flakes, and waterbeds are not exactly household items in Iran, and are inaccessible to a broad segment of the Iranian nation" he said.

However he expressed satisfaction at Iran's decision to import marshmellows and peanuts, saying they could be used in long hours along campground fires for a "dialogue of civilizations" between U.S. and Iranian scholars and officials who have nothing better to do in their life than talk.

The Iranian president himself is said to have already placed his own order for ten pounds of marshmellows from the U.S. based online grocer

Meanwhile in Tehran, a spokesperson for the Mushroom and Cauliflower Growers of Iran (MUSHACIRAN) criticized Khatami for lifting the import restrictions. Prices for Iranian mushrooms in the Tehran commodity exchange plummeted to a 5 year low following Khatami's press conference.


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