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US-Iran Relations

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 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 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 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 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 civilians.

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 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.