12 December 2000

U.S. Official on Core Issues in Relations with Iran

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Richard Roth said the United States has taken "calibrated and minimalist steps in response to clear political and foreign policy changes in Iran."

Roth said the positive changes in Iran include a series of increasingly free and fair elections, more social freedoms, and a general trend to strengthening Iran's civil society. He said Iran has moderated its foreign policies somewhat by seeking rapprochement with Europe and the Gulf Arab countries.

In response to such changes, Roth said, the United States has adopted a number of measures such as increasing the non-official and semi-official "people to people" exchanges between Iran and the U.S. and relaxing some U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Roth made his comments at a panel discussion entitled "U.S. Policy Toward Iran: Time for a Change?" organized by the Middle East Policy Council in Washington December 12.

Roth said the U.S. government has seen "no positive change" in the core issues that keep U.S.-Iran relations at an impasse. Roth named the core issues as Iranian opposition to the Mideast peace process, Iran's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and Iran's human rights abuses, especially of religious minorities.

Following is the text of Roth's remarks:

U.S. Policy Toward Iran: Time For a Change?
Prepared for Delivery by Richard Roth
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs
Department of State
At the Middle East Policy Council Conference
December 12, 2000

I'm very pleased to have this opportunity to speak about our Iran policy. More than 20 years after its revolution, Iran continues to surprise, intrigue, infuriate and, simply, to compel the attention of Americans.

There has been a great deal of continuity in our policies over these twenty years. Many of the same problems continue to complicate our relations. But obviously the Iran of today is not the same Iran we saw ten or five years ago. There have been discernible internal changes. They include a series of increasingly free and fair elections, more social freedoms, and a general trend to strengthening Iran's civil society.

The hesitant and uncertain nature of those changes has become all too clear over the past six months, however. And I think most Iran watchers agree that there is no easy way to predict Iran's short and medium term political future. Iran has also moderated, in some areas, its foreign policies, particularly in seeking rapprochement with Europe and the Gulf Arab countries. In other areas of great concern to the U.S. such as support for anti-Peace Process terrorist groups, and the development of WMD and long-range missiles, there has been no positive change, and in fact a trend toward increased efforts in each of these areas.

Several core issues have driven United States policy toward Iran since the revolution:

  • Iran's implacable opposition to the Peace Process, particularly its overt and covert support for groups advocating and committing acts of terrorism and other violent means to oppose the Peace Process.

  • Iran's aggressive pursuit of destabilizing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and long-range missile technology

  • Less than full Iranian respect for human rights, especially the treatment of religious minorities.

These core issues, and our assessment of their importance, have not changed. However, we have not failed to recognize that changes are occurring in Iranian politics, especially on domestic policies. We, like our European allies, have tried to view these developments as an opportunity to explore ways to engage Iran on issues of mutual interest and as a new means to pursue long-standing objectives. We have also been able to broaden the way we see our interests with Iran.

  • We have sought to increase the non-official and semi-official "people to people" exchanges between Iran and the U.S.

  • We have initiated some adjustments in our sanctions regime to reach out to the Iranian people in areas where the economic and other benefits of trade can most directly affect them.

  • We have supported certain Iranian diplomatic initiatives, such as the "Dialogue among Civilizations," and Iran's constructive participation in the 6 plus 2 dialogue on Afghanistan.

  • We have looked for opportunities to begin addressing the historical issues that hinder understanding on both sides.

  • We have offered to explore a global settlement of all outstanding legal claims between our two countries (often misleadingly termed "frozen assets").

  • And we have sought quite unambiguously a direct, government to government dialogue with Iran, without preconditions, to explore how our two countries can push this further. Because while the differences between the United States and Iran on policy issues are fairly clear, however, the areas where we could have, or should have, common interests, get much less attention. These areas potentially include policies toward Iraq, the implications for stability of the Gulf, Afghanistan, the security and independence of the states of Central Asia, and global issues such as narcotics trafficking and the environment.

If the United States and Iran ever arrive successfully at direct diplomatic engagement, each could be expected at least initially to defend its own national interests. However, in addition, each side might find a more creative approach in which to address our common interests. We do not believe that this can be accomplished through competing press statements, or through intermediaries no matter how sincere or well-intentioned.

Let me take a minute or two to review some of the criticism we hear from the opposing sides of the Iran policy debate. There are those who argue that the United States should lift all economic sanctions on Iran, even if gradually, because they harm American businesses in addition to damaging Iran. These critics hope that progress on the economic front will open the way for the flag and productive political relations. In an ideologically driven regime like the current one in Iran, this formula is not apparent. Nevertheless, we are well aware of the opportunity cost of economic sanctions and the new Administration should review carefully a package of economic measures that could be identified as incentives to encourage greater political dialogue. While a worthy goal, our European allies have found this a very difficult path to pursue with much success.

On the other hand, we continue to be painfully conscious these days, of the active Iranian opposition to fundamental U.S. interests in the region, namely stability of our friends and the success of the Middle East Peace Process. We believe Iran has pursued a provocative policy aimed at derailing the Peace Process, and consequently regional stability. Also, Iran's aggressive WMD programs are potentially destabilizing. Our policies, including our economic sanctions, are designed to directly challenge Iran on this ground, and to encourage a change in its policies.

From the other side of the debate, there are those who claim the United States has been fooled by a sort of "phony" reform, that we have jumped to support a reformist President who has little real power. I'd like to say for the record that we have no favored political leader or faction in Iran. We have undertaken a series of very carefully calibrated and minimalist steps in response to clear political and foreign policy changes in Iran at the macro level. Some of these changes began to develop under a previous leadership. And many of the positive social changes in Iran, such as the yet immature trends toward greater openness and transparency, have been driven from the bottom up by the Iranian people. What we are still waiting for is for these trends to be adopted by Iran's ruling elite and to be instituted throughout Iran's key institutions.

Who rules Iran is not nearly so important as what rules Iran will be governed by. As the situation evolves within Iran I expect the new Administration will try to be responsive to what rules emerge from the Iranian leadership as one basis for improved relations.

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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