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US-Iran Relations

Speech by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright

Washington, D.C.
March 17, 2000

Text As Delivered

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 diplomatic ties."

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.


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 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 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 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 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.