In the most extensive such overture to Iran since its 1979 revolution, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Wednesday that the United States recognizes that the momentum of change in Tehran offers a "historic opportunity" to end 20 years of hostility.
Acknowledging Iran's "critical role" in Asia and the "remarkable" vote that installed President Mohammad Khatami in office ten months ago, Albright called on the new reformist government to help outline a "road map" to normal relations between the two countries.
"We want to develop a process that will lead to a different relationship. As the wall of mistrust comes down, we can develop with the Islamic Republic, when it is ready, a road map leading to normal relations," Albright told the Asia Society in New York.
While acknowledging that the gap between the nations "remains wide," she said: "It is time to test the possibilities for bridging the gap."
In what verged on an apology, the secretary acknowledged Iranian "resentment" of past U.S. intervention in Iran.
"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," she said.
During an interview in January with Cable News Network, Khatami made a similar indirect apology for the 1979 seizure of U.S. hostages in Tehran and the "hurt" it may have caused the American people.
Albright praised the Khatami government for publicly acknowledging that any society seeking to develop needs to understand Western civilization.
"The same can be said with respect to Eastern civilization and Islamic civilization," she said.
The secretary also noted that Khatami said the U.S. government "deserves respect" as a reflection of the "great American people."
"I would say that President Khatami deserves respect because he is the choice of the Iranian people," she added.
After two decades of skepticism by four U.S. administrations about Iran's policies and long-term intentions, Albright's speech was remarkable for its positive language.
The Clinton administration has for months been probing the possibilities of warming relations between Washington and Tehran.
President Clinton has been "personally intrigued" with the opportunity of progress since Khatami's stunning May, 1997, election upset against a clergy-supported candidate, according to one senior U.S. official.
Until now, though, the overtures have been tepid and indirect.
The question of U.S.-Iran relations is a "topic of great interest and importance to this secretary of State," Albright said Wednesday.
She specifically welcomed Tehran's actions on several key issues that have divided the two countries.
At the top of the list was Iran's statement in December that it will not impose its views on the U.S.-brokered Mideast peace process.
Khatami has held extensive talks with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, and, in January, when Khatami publicly denounced terrorism, Iran condemned the killing of innocent Israelis.
"If these views are translated into a rejection of terrorism as a tool of Iranian statecraft, it would do much to dispel the concerns of the international community, from Germany to the Persian Gulf and from Argentina to Algeria," Albright said.
Western officials have either exposed or suspected that Iran or its surrogates had a hand in major acts of extremism in all four places, including the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing that killed 19 American service personnel in Saudi Arabia and the bombings of Jewish institutions in Buenos Aires.
Albright also lauded Iran's "greatly improved" record in the war against drugs, its diplomatic contributions to Afghan peace talks, its rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf neighbors and its treatment of 2 million Iraqi and Afghan refugees.
But she expressed concern that Iran has continued denouncing Israel in "inflammatory and unacceptable" terms and that its support for terrorism has not ceased.
As a result, she said, the United States will continue its economic sanctions against Iran, as well as its opposition to the sale or transfer of technology to Tehran for the development of missiles or weapons of mass destruction and to Iranian pipelines for Caspian oil or gas.
But American policy is not aimed at the Iranian people or the Islamic faith, nor does the United States seek to overthrow the Iranian government, Albright said.
In another sign of changing times, Iran's U.N. ambassador, Hadi Nejad Hosseinian, who was granted a special State Department waiver to travel to Washington from a restricted area around New York City, also gave a speech Wednesday on U.S.-Iran relations.