U.S. offers a hand to Iran

Import limits lifted

Albright recognizes legitimate grievances

March 18, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government went further than ever before in trying to end more than two decades of hatred and hostility with Iran yesterday, announcing a lifting of import restrictions on some consumer goods and calling for an increase in people-to-people exchanges.

The Clinton administration also openly addressed past grievances between the two nations, acknowledging the "significant" role played by the United States in the 1953 overthrow of Iran's elected government and U.S. support for the regime of Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi.

Yesterday's moves, designed to encourage a growing democratic movement in Iran, were greeted cautiously by Tehran. The Iranian government said it would allow the import of wheat and medical supplies from the United States, a country it has called the "Great Satan."

Announcing the policy change, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright mentioned conciliatory statements made by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and the recent election of a moderate parliament.

She said it was time to "plant the seeds of a new relationship," two decades after Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 American hostages for 444 days.

"It is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent ... intervention by America in their internal affairs," she said, noting that President Clinton has said that the United States "must bear its fair share of responsibility for the problems that have arisen in U.S.-Iranian relations."

"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."

Albright noted, however, that the United States still has "serious" grievances with Iran, particularly its support for terrorism and opposition to a Middle East peace plan.

Iran's official news agency IRNA said Tehran welcomed the lifting of restrictions of carpets, dried fruits, nuts and caviar and would respond by importing U.S. grain and medicine.

`Lowering the wall'

Still, Iran's U.N. ambassador, Mohammad Hadi Nejad-Hoseinian, reacted cautiously to Albright's speech in a later appearance at the conference where she spoke. He wondered openly whether the United States would "lift all sanctions," a reference to the continued ban on imports of Iranian oil, the country's biggest export item, which provides about $16 billion annually or 85 percent of its foreign exchange.

"Dialogue must take place devoid of sanctions," he said. But the U.S. acknowledgment of past "shortcomings" toward Iran would contribute to "lowering the wall of mistrust," he said.

Later Albright told reporters it would take time for Iran to make a more detailed response to the U.S. overture.

"We are not expecting any rapid reaction to it," she said.

The announcement drew a mixed response on Capitol Hill.

Republican Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana were among those supporting the administration. Hagel said an improved relationship "is in the best interests of both nations."

But Republican Sen. Connie Mack of Florida disagreed. "Principled foreign policy stands up to terrorism," he said.

Rep. Brad Sherman of California, along with 10 other House Democrats, wrote to Clinton to condemn the "unilateral concessions."

Albright said that rather than see Iran through the "prism" of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in 1979, it was time for a new view of the country.

Khatami, after his election in 1997, spoke of the need for "freedom and diversity" in Iran. Last month popular support for his views was shown with the election of a moderate parliament.

"The democratic winds in Iran are so refreshing, and many of the ideas espoused by its leaders are so encouraging there is a risk we will assume too much," Albright conceded.

Despite Iran's trend toward democracy, control over the military, judiciary, courts and police "remain in unelected hands," she said, referring to hard-line elements of the clergy.

"The elements of its foreign policy about which we are most concerned have not improved," she said. "But the momentum in the direction of internal reform, freedom and openness is growing stronger."

`Unnecessary impediments'

Besides lifting some sanctions on consumer goods, Albright said the United States would explore ways to remove "unnecessary impediments" to the exchange of American and Iranian scholars, professionals, artists, athletes and nongovernmental organizations.

In addition, the U.S. government said it would increase efforts to conclude a global settlement of any outstanding legal claims between the two countries.

In an overture last year, the Clinton administration allowed the sale of spare aircraft parts for commercial airliners previously sold to Iran.

Clinton also eased restrictions on exports of food, medicine and medical equipment to sanctioned countries, which included Iran.

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