By Michael Kilian, Washington Bureau. Tribune news services contributed to this report.
March 18, 2000

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. moved Friday to establish friendlier relations with longtime enemy Iran, announcing a package of economic concessions and making an official apology for a history of CIA meddling in Iranian internal affairs.

The two nations have been foes since the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Muslim extremists who held 52 Americans as hostages for 444 days.

Reaction was generally favorable to the new shift in U.S. policy, which fell short of relaxing oil sanctions.

Instead, embargoes are to be lifted on Iranian exports of Persian carpets and several food products. The U.S. will also move to release Iranian assets frozen after the embassy seizure and seek ways to augment cultural contacts.

Calling for an end to "the long cold winter of our mutual discontent," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the election of moderate President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and the victory by reformers in Iran's parliamentary elections last month have created an opportunity "to plant the seeds now for a new and better relationship in years to come."

Announcing the initiative in a speech to the American Iranian Council here, Albright characterized the embassy takeover as "a disgraceful breach" and said the Clinton administration still objects to continuing repression within Iran and the Islamic nation's support for international terrorism and development of weapons of mass destruction.

"But the momentum in the direction of internal reform, freedom and openness is growing stronger," she said. "We have concluded the time is right to broaden our perspective . . . because the trends that were becoming evident inside Iran are plainly gathering steam."

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said: "Iran thinks (the initiative) is positive and welcomes it."

Iran UN Ambassador Hadi Nejad-Hosseinian said, however, that while the move could be viewed as positive, it was unclear where it would lead.

And he decried what he called the United States' "insolent and domineering spirit."

Though the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans a hearing Monday on Iranian and Iraqi weapons development, there was little criticism in the capital to the announced thaw.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he commended Albright for "reaching out to the people of Iran."

"President Khatami and their recent elections suggest that Iran may be turning a new page toward democracy and a different governmental approach," he said.

"You're going to have trouble finding contrarian views on this one," said Brookings Institution Iran scholar Suzanne Maloney. "For the first time, the administration is making a strong strategic rationale for normalizing relations with this country."

Anthony Cordesman, co-director of Middle Eastern studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that the U.S. "has had no allies" in its hard-line stance against Iran and had little choice but to respond to the recent strides made by reformers within that country.

"Given the results of last month's elections and the fact that there will be another election soon, you'd have to be foolish not to take this initiative now," he said.

Cordesman and Maloney said they expected Albright's overtures to be opposed by Islamic conservatives in Iran because the U.S. continues to object to repressive domestic policies that the fundamentalists consider essential to religious doctrine and basic to Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

Many Iranians will also be unhappy because the initiative leaves oil sanctions in place.

Oil is the primary source of income for Iran, which has long been one of the world's major oil producers. The sanctions have contributed to a stagnated economy and unemployment rates exceeding 20 percent in a country with a population of 62 million.

Cordesman said the sanctions have also added to global gas price problems because "efficient American oil companies have been unable to assist Iran in developing its petroleum resources."

Iran has been able to earn nearly $1 billion a year from exports of carpets, dried fruit, pistachio nuts and caviar--products it will now be free to sell to the U.S. Estimates of the additional income this will mean for Iran range from $85 million to as much as $500 million.

"This step . . . is 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 said.

Most of the Iranian assets seized by the U.S. government during the 1979-81 hostage crisis have been returned through an international arbitration process at The Hague, Albright said. The administration will now seek to settle "the few but substantial remaining claims," she said.

Washington will also "explore ways to remove unnecessary impediments to increase contacts between American and Iranian scholars, professional artists, athletes and non-government organizations," she said.

Albright conceded that the U.S. has intruded in Iranian internal affairs. American operatives played "a significant role" in the overthrow of popular Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and supported Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi though he "brutally repressed political dissent," she said.

In further apology, she said the U.S. was "regrettably short-sighted" in backing Iraq during the long, bloody and inconclusive war waged between the two nations in the 1980s.

She found fault with the Iranian government as well.

"Harsh punishments are still meted out for various kinds of dissent," she said. "Religious persecution continues against the Baha'i and also against some Iranians who have converted to Christianity."

She also expressed fears for the fate of 13 Iranian Jews who were detained for more than a year without official charges and who will go on trial in April. She complained that "innocent Americans and friends of America have been murdered by terrorist groups that are supported by the Iranian government."

Albright warned that Friday's initiative was only a preliminary step to which Iran must respond with further reforms.

"To date, the political developments in Iran have not caused its military to cease its determined effort to acquire the technology, materials and assistance needed to develop nuclear weapons," she said. "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 principal sanctions will remain."

©Copyright 2000, Chicago Tribune

Top 19 Baha'i Sites Page last updated/revised 032000
Return to the Bahá'í Association's Main Web Page