U.S. to Ease Sanctions on Iran, Notes Errors

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Acknowledging past mistakes in U.S. policy toward Iran, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Friday launched a major overture to Tehran that could open up trade, expedite settlement of frozen assets and lead to a renewal of formal diplomatic relations after 20 years of hostility.

As an initial step toward normalized trade, Albright announced that the United States will lift sanctions that bar imports of Iranian carpets, caviar, pistachios and dried fruit, Iran’s biggest export items after petroleum. But the move stops short of removing a similar prohibition on oil and gas, which account for more than 80% of Iranian export revenue.

In an unprecedented gesture, Albright said the United States now understands Iranian anger over a 1953 CIA operation that toppled a nationalist government and allowed the last shah to return to Iran and preside over a “brutally repressive” regime for a quarter of a century. She acknowledged that the coup was “clearly a setback” for Iran’s political development.


Albright also expressed regret for U.S. support of Baghdad during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the bloodiest modern Mideast conflict. She said Washington was “regrettably shortsighted . . . especially in light of our subsequent experiences with [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein.”

The Clinton administration’s overture--both in substance and symbolism--is the boldest move yet in an accelerating process of rapprochement with an Islamic government that once allowed radical students to hold 52 Americans hostage for 444 days and excoriated the United States as “the Great Satan.” Iran immediately welcomed the move.

“The United States must bear its share of responsibility for the problems that have arisen in U.S.-Iranian relations,” Albright said in remarks delivered at a Washington conference on the eve of the Iranian new year.

After the partial lifting of sanctions, a second step of the new U.S. policy is to “deepen the bonds of mutual understanding and trust” by removing impediments to “people-to-people contacts,” she said. Those contacts began after reformist Iranian President Mohammad Khatami called in January 1998 for cultural exchanges to help bring down the “wall of mistrust” between the United States and Iran.

As a third step, Albright announced that the United States is willing to expedite efforts to achieve a “global settlement” of outstanding legal and financial claims between the two countries since the Carter administration froze all Iranian assets after the Tehran hostage drama two decades ago.

The claims have been adjudicated by a tribunal in The Hague as part of the deal that won freedom for the U.S. hostages in 1981. The delay is attributable in part to a huge discrepancy between the two countries on the value of the assets, particularly military aircraft. Tehran claims that it is still owed $10 billion, while Washington contends that the correct figure is a fraction of that amount.


The administration’s overture comes less than a month after a new generation of reformers swept parliamentary elections in Iran, ending two decades of control by conservatives and consolidating the reformists’ hold over the traditional state institutions. But Albright cautioned against excessive expectations.

“The democratic winds in Iran are so refreshing, and many of the ideas espoused by its leaders so encouraging, there is a risk we will assume too much,” she said. “In truth, it is too early to know precisely where the democratic trends will lead.”

Albright said the United States will not lift sanctions on oil because of Iran’s ongoing support of extremist groups, its opposition to the Middle East peace process and its development of weapons of mass destruction.

The move immediately came under fire in Congress. Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), for one, called the policy shift “unprincipled” and inconsistent.

“We cannot reward a government that continues to aggressively support terrorism around the world or turn a blind eye to a government that has killed Americans without taking responsibility,” Mack said. “American victims of terrorism deserve justice, not pistachios and caviar.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) condemned the move because it doesn’t guarantee concessions from Iran. He expressed concern about the impending trial of 13 Iranian Jews charged in a shadowy spy case. Sherman had appealed to the White House to delay the announcement until after the trial.


“The greater craving than for caviar is the craving in the State Department to make concessions to Iran before we get more than the first wisp of improved Iranian behavior,” Sherman said on the House floor.

But one former Iran skeptic commended Albright’s speech. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said that, in light of the reformers’ sweep of three elections during the past three years, the United States should respond by “turning a new page with a prospective olive branch.”

At the conference attended by Albright, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Hadi Nejad Hosseinian, welcomed the partial lifting of sanctions as “important and refreshing” steps and said Tehran will reciprocate with “positive and proportionate measures.”

But he also said the U.S. actions are “insufficient” to bring about a quick and drastic change in relations. “Hawkish” statements from Congress, coupled with mixed messages by the administration, “fail to generate sufficient trust for Iran to become convinced that the benefits of the U.S.-proposed dialogue would outweigh its possible costs,” he said.

Nejad Hosseinian expressed anger over the apparent conflict between Washington’s expressed interest in intensifying people-to-people exchanges and its refusal to change a law that requires all Iranians to be fingerprinted and photographed upon entry, a practice that he called “humiliating.”

U.S. officials counter that such treatment is required by law of visitors from any country that is on the State Department’s terrorism list, as Iran still is.


Yet the Iranian envoy assured the conference, organized by the American-Iranian Council, that the process of domestic reform and serious debate about foreign policy options are now “irreversible.”

Despite the reservations expressed by both sides, the atmospherics of U.S.-Iran relations have clearly begun to change in important ways. At the end of her talk, Albright received a standing ovation from a crowd of Americans and Iranians, including current and former diplomats from both countries.

“The tone and the content were both positive and will be perceived very positively by both ordinary Iranians and political figures,” said Nasser Hadian, a Tehran University political scientist who attended the speech. “This is a very positive step forward.”

Former National Security Advisor Robert C. McFarlane, who went to Tehran in the mid-1980s during the Reagan administration’s ill-fated arms-for-hostages scheme involving Iran and Nicaragua’s Contras, said the move was “in the right direction.”


Washington’s New Policy

These are the changes in U.S. policy toward Iran announced Friday by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright:

* Americans will be allowed to purchase carpets and food products such as dried fruit, nuts and caviar from Iran.


* The U.S. government will explore ways to remove “unnecessary impediments” to increased contacts between American and Iranian scholars, professionals, artists, athletes and nongovernmental organizations.

* Washington is also prepared to increase efforts with Iran aimed at eventually concluding a global settlement of outstanding legal claims between the two countries.

Source: Associated Press