US v Iran: the political challenge

From a speech by the US Secretary of State to the Asia Society, New York
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The Independent Culture
IRAN is one of the oldest continuous civilisations in the world. The Islamic republic is at the centre of a region which includes countries that contain three quarters of the world's population, three quarters of the world's proven energy resources and 60 per cent of global GNP. These facts of life, and the critical role Iran plays in that region, make the question of US-Iran relations a topic of great interest and importance to this Secretary of State.

The United States established relations with Iran, then Persia, in 1856. For decades, our ties were limited but cordial. After the Second World War, America supported Iran in a bitter territorial dispute with the Soviet Union. And through the first decades of the Cold War, as part of a strategy intended to counter Soviet expansionism, the US supported the Shah's regime and allocated to it large quantities of military and economic assistance.

We did so because of a common strategic interest. We were concerned with an effort to contain the spread of totalitarian influence across the globe. The exigencies of the Cold War also generated US policies and activities that were resented by many Iranians. In retrospect, it is possible to understand their reaction, but the Cold War is now over and it is time to put that period behind us.

After the forced departure of the Shah in 1979, Iran turned inward, in keeping with the Ayatollah Khomeini's slogan that we must become isolated in order to become independent. This trend was manifested most extremely and unacceptably in the seizure of hostages at the US Embassy.

Neither country has forgotten the past, but most Iranians, like most Americans, are now focused on the future. And clearly, it is possible now - if Iran so chooses - for it to be both fully independent and fully open to the world.

Last May nearly 70 per cent of Iran's people supported the election of Mohammad Khatami as President, demanding from the Iranian Government greater freedoms, a more civil society based on the rule of law, and a more moderate foreign policy aimed at ending Iran's estrangement from the international community.

At the time, President Clinton welcomed this election. The depth of the demand for change was obvious. So, too, was the evident desire of Iranians for greater openness and more personal liberty.

Since taking office, President Khatami has responded to the demands of the Iranian people by emphasising the importance of dialogue among nations and cultures, and by acknowledging the world's growing interdependence. He has said that the American Government deserves respect because it is a reflection of the great American people.

In past years, Iran's opposition to the Middle East peace process and to those willing to negotiate with Israel has been vitriolic and violent. The Islamic republic still refuses to recognise Israel, and its leaders continue to denounce Israel in inflammatory and unacceptable terms. In January, President Khatami publicly denounced terrorism and condemned the killing of innocent Israelis. He argued that terrorism was not only against Islam but also counterproductive to Iran's purposes. Iran, after all, has also been a victim of terrorism.

We view these developments with interest. However, these hopes must be balanced against the reality that Iran's support for terrorism has not yet ceased; serious violations of human rights persist; and its efforts to develop long-range missiles and to acquire nuclear weapons continue.

The United States opposes, any country selling or transferring to Iran materials and technologies that could be used to develop long-range missiles or weapons of mass destruction. Similarly, we oppose Iranian efforts to sponsor terror. Accordingly, our economic policies, including the export pipelines for Caspian oil and gas, remain unchanged.

We are ready to explore further ways to build mutual confidence and avoid misunder-standings. Iran should consider parallel steps. If such a process can be initiated and sustained in a way that addresses the concerns of both sides, then we in the United States can see the prospect of a very different relationship. As the wall of mistrust falls, we can develop with the Islamic republic a road map leading to normal relations.

Obviously two decades of mistrust cannot be erased overnight. The gap between us remains wide. But it is time to test the possibilities for bridging this gap.