WASHINGTON (Reuters)–In a major overture to Iran–the United States said on Friday it would let in Iranian carpets and other traditional exports–promised to work harder to settle financial claims and recognized Iranian grievances at Washington’s Iran policy from the 1950s through the 1980s.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright–in her first policy speech on Iran’since reformists won last month’s elections–said she wanted to break down the "wall of distrust" that has divided the countries since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
"I call on Iran to join 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," she told a packed audience at a gathering arranged by the American Iranian Council.
Her gestures answer most of Iran’s conditions for opening government-to-government talks with the United States–Washington’s aim since Iranian President Mohammad Khatami won election in 1997 with a reformist agenda.
The centerpiece is ending 1987 sanctions on Iran’s non-oil exports–such as carpets–caviar and pistachios–a change she said would show millions of Iranian craftsmen–farmers and fishermen that the United States bears them no ill will.
"Second–the United States will explore ways to remove unnecessary impedimen’s to increased contacts between American and Iranian scholars–professionals–artists–athletes and non-governmental organizations," she added.
"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," she said.
The claims settlement process–sometimes referred to "unfreezing Iranian assets," takes place through an independent tribunal in The Hague. It includes Iranian claims for weapons paid for by the deposed Shah–Mohammad Reza Pahlavi–and never delivered.
"Our goal now is to settle the relatively few–but very substantial–claims that that are still outstanding between our two governmen’s in The Hague. And by so doing–to put this issue behind us once and for all," Albright said.
Albright also made historically symbolic gestures to Iranians–whose anti-Americanism stemmed largely from the close ties between Washington and the Shah–its main Gulf ally.
She went back as far as 1953–when the US Central Intelligence Agency helped overthrow populist Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh–who wanted to nationalize Iranian oil.
"The coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development and it is easy to know why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America," she said.
"During the next quarter century the United States … 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," she added.
Her apology extended into the more recent history of the Iran-Iraq 1980-88–when the United States favored the Iraqi side for fear of Iran’s Islamic revolutionary zeal.
"Aspects of US policy towards Iraq during its conflict with Iran appear now to have been regrettably shortsighted–especially in light of our subsequent experiences with (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein," she said.
Iranians in the audience said Tehran would especially welcome Albright’s remarks on Gulf security–long a bone of contention between Iran and the United States.
"We both have a stake in a future of stability and peace in the Gulf. Iran lives in a dangerous world. We welcome efforts to make it less dangerous and would encourage regional discussions aimed at reducing tensions," she said.
"She acknowledged Iran’s role in the Gulf and that’s something the Iranians wanted recognized. I think there will be a positive response," said Shaul Bakhash–an expert on Iranian politics at George Mason University near Washington.
Mohammad Mahallati–Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations between 1987 and 1989–said the Iranian government and people would also appreciate what he called "the important moral step" of recognizing US mistakes in the past.
He said the carpets and other Iranian exports may not have great commercial value but they too have a symbolic value as expressions of Iranian art and culture.
Robert Pelletreau–chairman of the American Iranian Council and a former US ambassador to the Middle East–said that by speaking about Iranian grievances–Albright had gone further than ever before in making gestures to Iranians.
"The tone was terrific–the way she reached out and recognized grievances. That has been missing in US efforts so far. It’s a very positive development," he told Reuters.
But Albright did not step back from US accusations that Iran’supports "international terrorism" and is trying to develop nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.
"Until these policies change–fully normal ties between our governmen’s will not be possible and our principal sanctions will remain," she said. The other sanctions ban imports of Iranian oil and investment in Iran’s oil and gas industry.
"We are not losing sight of the issues that have long troubled us. We look forward to Iran truly fulfilling its promise … to live up in deed and well as word to the pledges its leaders have made in such areas as proliferation and opposition to terrorism," she added.