Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright Remarks before the American-Iranian
Council March 17, 2000, Washington, D.C. As released by the Office of the
Spokesman U.S. Department of State.
Thank you very much. (Applause) Wait 'till I finish! Thank you very
much, Professor Amirahmadi and Ambassador Pelleteau, Excellencies from
the Diplomatic corps, distinguished colleagues, guests and friends.
Today's conference reflects a coming together of a real pantheon of
organizations. Not just the American-Iranian Council, but also the Asia
Society, the Middle East Institute and the Georgetown School of Foreign
Service. The wealth of expertise in this room is enormous. And it is testimony
to Iran's importance.
As this audience well knows, Iran is one of the world's oldest continuing
civilizations. It has one of the globe's richest and most diverse cultures.
Its territory covers half the coastline of the Gulf and 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 in Central and South Asia,
where a great deal of the world's illegal narcotics are produced, several
major terrorist groups are based, and huge reserves of oil and gas are
just beginning to be tapped. And it 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. 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 and the start
of spring. And I want to begin by wishing all Iranian-Americans a Happy
New Year, Eid-e-shuma-Mubarak. (Applause.)
I extend the same wishes to the Iranian people overseas. Spring is
the season of hope and renewal; of planting the seeds for new crops. And
my hope is that in 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 is
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 a nuclear weapons
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. 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's President's
call for a dialogue between our people. We encouraged academic, cultural
and athletic content. We updated our advisory to Americans wishing to travel
to Iran. We reiterated our willingness to engage in officially authorized
discussions with Iran regarding each others principle 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 even further.
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 many years.
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'i and also against some Iranians
who have converted to Christianity.
And governments around the world, including our own, have expressed
concerns about the need to ensure the 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 US-Iran relations.
Moreover, in the fall of 1998, several prominent writers and publishers
were murdered, apparently by rogue elements in Iran security forces. And
just this past weekend, a prominent editor and advisor to President Khatami
was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt.
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 per capita income lower than 20 years ago.
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 hard to discern. 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
The challenge of how to respond to Iran on the official is more complex,
and it requires a discussion not only of our present perception and future
hopes but also of the somewhat tumultuous past.
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
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 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 Massadegh. 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 internal affairs.
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 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. And innocent Americans and friends of America have been murdered
by terrorist groups that are supported by the Iranian Government.
In fact, Congress in 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 dialog 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 remove.
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 trust.
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
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 US-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
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 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 voluntarily assumed.
When we strive to support progress towards a Middle East Peace, we
serve the interest and embrace the aspirations of tens of millions of people,
Arab and Israeli alike, of all backgrounds and faiths.
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 detente. And Foreign Minister Kharazzi 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 detente or principle
engagements or constructive dialogue or something else.
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 proliferation, and
because the authorities exercising control in Tehran financed and supported
terrorist groups, including those violently opposed to the Middle East
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 principle
sanctions will remain.
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
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
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
This step is a logical extension of the adjustments we made last year.
It also 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 them 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 arbitral 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 of the private claims have been resolved through
The Hague Tribunal process.
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
and 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 looked toward Iran truly fulfilling its promises to serve as an
"anchor of stability," and to live up, indeed as well as were,
to the pledges its leaders have made in such areas as 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 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 a new year for Iran and the
start 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 around the world today the great divide
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 anywhere who are still ensnared
by the perceptions and prejudices of the past, and those everywhere 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 of all.
Thank you very much.