REMARKS BY SECRETARY OF STATE MADELEINE K. ALBRIGHT
ON AMERICAN-IRANIAN RELATIONS
March 17, 2000, Washington, D.C.
As released by the Office of the Spokesman
U.S. Department of State
MODERATOR: Your Excellency, Ladies and Gentlemen. It is a great honor
for me to introduce our keynote speaker for today's conference on
United States relations with Iran. Before I do that, however, please
allow me to do two things. First, to make a blanket thank you remarks
to all our coordinators and sponsors, as with that a good number of
dedicated individuals who make this event to happen. For the benefit
of time, unfortunately, I am not able to go through that list. Some of
them are listed on your program. Others will be acknowledged
throughout this conference.
Next, I want also to introduce the American-Iranian Council to you.
Founded in 1997, AIC is a tax-exempt organization dedicated to
promoting dialogue and better understanding between the people and
governments of the United States and Iran.
The guiding principle of AIC is that the mutual interest of the United
States and Iran far outweigh their differences. We have worked
steadily over the past several years to achieve our goals, to host
projects, seminars, conferences and publications.
Our honorary chairman is former Secretary of State, the Honorable
Cyrus Vance. At the event we organized jointly with the Asia Society
in New York in January 1998, he said and I quote, "In the past two
decades, what is abnormal in international relations has been accepted
as normal in US-Iran relations." He then went on to say that and I
quote, "It's time for Iran and the United States to reestablish
I have personally spent well over a decade thinking about the day when
an Iranian Embassy opens up in this town and an American one in
Tehran. And questionably, such an occasion will be a cause for
celebration by Americans and Iranians particularly Iranian- Americans
in this great nation.
For the 1 million strong Iranian-American community, that will be a
particularly auspicious time, a time of reconstructing what has been
two decades of painfully divided identity.
In June, 1998, in her important policy speech on Iran, Secretary
Albright said, and I quote "We must always be flexible enough to
respond to change and seize historic opportunities." In fact,
Secretary Albright's presence at our event today is an affirmation of
her belief in seizing upon historic opportunities and an indication
that the time has come for the two countries to go forward.
Madame Secretary, we are deeply honored to have you with us this
morning. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Secretary
of State, The Honorable Madeleine Albright. (Applause.)
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: 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
Asian 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
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.
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 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. 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
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
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 skills. (Laughter.)
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 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 School of Foreign
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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 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 principle sanctions will
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 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 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
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
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
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
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.
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