Iran And The United States: Breaking The Impasse

Published April 3rd, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

The following is the text of a speech delivered by Mr Robert Pelletreau at the American Iranian Council Conference in Washington on 22 March 2001. Mr Pelletreau, formerly US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, is currently with the law firm Alfridi and Angell in Washington, D.C.  


When the American-Iranian Council met in Washington a year ago to celebrate Nowruz and the advent of spring, there was a feeling of expectation that reform was gaining ground in Iran and that an improvement in relations between the US and Iran was imminent.  


We were honored to have the Secretary of State Madeleine Albright use our forum to deliver a major policy speech and message to Iran’s leaders and to have the Permanent Representative of Iran to the United Nations Nejad Hosseinian give a thoughtful and dignified initial response. 


Now, a year later, we must recognize that those expectations – both those expectations – remain unrealized. The ambitious agenda of new legislation espoused by some reformers elected to the Sixth Majlis remains stillborn.  


The promise of greater press freedom and more open political debate has been met with a wave of newspaper closures and journalist arrests and the removal of their champion, the Minister of Culture, from the Government.  


President Khatami has publicly confessed an inability to carry out his own programs in the face of conservative objections, and his candidacy for the upcoming Presidential election is uncertain.  


Whereas a year ago observers were predicting a gradual but inevitable rise of the reformers, today we must recognize that there has been a reassertion of conservative influence in Iranian public life and society.  


While Iran has continued to reach out to nations in Europe, the Arab world and Asia, relations with the US are basically unchanged from a year ago. 


In opening the door to carpets and Iranian food imports, as it had removed restrictions on the export of agricultural commodities, medicines and medical equipment the year before, the US had hoped that better intergovernmental communication and a fuller bilateral dialogue might result. 


As it was, however, the Bush Administration took office with the now 22-year estrangement between the US and Iran largely intact, a ripening arms relationship between Tehran and Moscow, strengthening ties between Iran and China, and a growing partnership between Iran and European and other foreign energy companies in developing Iran’s extensive oil and gas resources. 


There is no doubt that the US and Iran can live without each other. They have been doing so for more than two decades but, I would submit, both nations are the poorer for it.  


This is not the relationship either side’s leaders would like to see if they could design it from scratch. It is not the relationship the vast majority of Iranians and Americans are ready for. It is not the relationship that best serves the national interests of either country. 


The question perhaps is this. Can the Bush Administration and the next Iranian Presidency, be it under President Khatami or someone else, succeed in developing more normal and mutually beneficial relations over the coming four years where the Clinton Administration and the first Khatami Presidency have failed to do so over the past four years? The reasons why both sides should make this effort seem very strong. 


Iran, as a nation of some 65 million people strategically located along the eastern shore of the Gulf, between the newly independent states of Central Asia and the Indian Ocean, and to the west of Afghanistan and the Asian subcontinent, is too big and too central to be ignored or isolated. 


The US, as today’s foremost political, economic and military power, as its most dynamic source of scientific discovery and technological innovation, and as home to a million Iranian-Americans, has much to offer Iran in ways that most Iranians would find acceptable and beneficial. The US is also too big and too central to be ignored or isolated. 


The Revolution in Iran has been in power for over 20 years. It is not in danger of being overthrown. Despite occasional incidents of violence by the Mujahideen Al-Khalq, which the US Government has in no way condoned or supported, no significant opposition movement exists, inside or outside the country. 


Rational development of the Central Asian States, a policy that the US ostensibly supports, cannot take place without allowing diversification of their economies and export routes, including the development of healthy and mutually beneficial relations with Iran as well as Turkey. 


Iran, which possesses the second largest reserves of gas after Russia and the fifth largest petroleum reserves in an energy-dependent world, will inevitably have a major role to play in helping meet future world energy needs. The US cannot prevent it.  


Agreements with TotalFinaElf, Eni, Shell, Petronas, Gazprom, Norsk Hydro, Bow Valley and now a major agreement with Japan show that international energy companies are not being deterred by ILSA or by US pressure from dealing with Iran.  


US companies and US technology should not be prohibited from participating in the development of these important resources. Nor should they be prohibited from competing in the growing Iranian market for petrochemical and power plants, civilian aircraft, telecommunications and irrigation systems, and pollution control equipment to name just a few of the opportunities opened up by today’s high oil and gas prices. 


Iran and the US have parallel interests in helping restore stability and representative government to Afghanistan and in persuading Afghanistan to end its safe haven for international terrorists and its production of narcotics. 


Many major issues for the US in the 21st century – and here I would cite international terrorism, narcotics trafficking and the spread of nuclear weapons as three of the most urgent – will require cooperation between the US and Iran to be dealt with effectively. 


Even with such strong justification, sweeping action by the new administration is unlikely. Iranian hostility toward Israel, and its support for Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hizballah in a situation of daily violence where Palestinian terrorism and suicide bombings have reappeared, make positive gestures difficult.  


In addition, the possible implication of Iran in direct acts of terrorism against Americans as a result of ongoing investigations is another reason for Presidential caution.  


Thirdly, there is no urgency to reaching decisions. The Iranian Presidential election will not occur until June; the US cannot and should not try to influence the outcome. 


The administration can proceed in a careful and deliberate way, and it appears to be doing just that, conducting a comprehensive review of the impact and effectiveness of unilateral sanctions on a number of countries as an initial step.  


In addition, the development of a new energy and energy security policy under the supervision of Vice President Cheney has been launched and this will likely contain an Iranian dimension. 


Before a comprehensive policy emerges later this year, however, several lesser measures could be considered: 

The administration could review and revise the current comprehensive fingerprinting requirement to which all Iranians are subjected on entering the country.  


Our law enforcement agencies have the technology, the data bases and the human capability to design a better and less humiliating system without jeopardizing the nation’s security, but they lack the will to do so without policy direction. 


The US could join Iran and other nations in working to stem the flow of narcotics coming out of Afghanistan toward the world’s markets. The UN International Drug Control Program has an office in Tehran.  


The British have recently increased their cooperation with the Iranian Government in this common objective. US technology and US intelligence could help in this effort and, in doing so, increase the effectiveness of our own policy to clamp down on drug trafficking and smuggling. 


We could also open the door wider in the area of educational and cultural exchange by providing a blanket waiver or license to recognized educational and cultural institutions in the US to spend money in Iran for valid educational and cultural purposes.  


This would permit American universities, for example, to establish study programs in Iran for students and teachers. 


It would further the "Dialogue between Civilizations" that President Khatami proposed and the US endorsed and would at the same time improve our country’s knowledge and understanding of Iran’s history, culture and contemporary developments.  


Better yet, the waiver could apply both ways so that Iranian students, artists and scholars could also increase their knowledge of the US through educational and cultural travel and study. 


Although Iranian parliamentarians have briefly visited the US within the framework of the Interparliamentary Union, the door has remained closed to members of the US Congress, or even former members for that matter, to make reciprocal visits to Iran.  


These are elected representatives of the people, not members of the US Administration, and Iran should consider their travel as a dimension of people-to-people exchange rather than official dialogue for which the Government in Tehran has indicated it is not yet ready. 


As the Bush Administration begins to implement its policies toward Iraq along the lines that Secretary Colin Powell described in Congressional hearings earlier this month, the inconsistency of removing the embargo on civilian goods for Iraq, a regime which the US wishes to weaken and contain, while continuing to restrict civilian transactions with Iran, a government with which the US would like better relations, is likely to become more apparent.  


The logic of restoring international trade in both directions and of encouraging Iran to become part of the global economy and the cyber economy is also becoming more compelling.  


History is full of examples where healthy trade opened the way for productive political relations, examples where business leaders have proven to be effective ambassadors. 


Iran and the US will continue to have differences, some deadly serious, some trivial, some more psychological than substantive, but realization is growing that these differences can best be addressed in a context of restored diplomatic relations and of respect for each other’s history, culture and contributions to human civilization. 


By applying these principles, the leadership in Tehran and in Washington can build a new and more normal relationship which is correct and, in areas where our respective national interests and values permit, even cooperative and mutually beneficial. 

by Robert H Pelletreau 



© 2001 Mena Report (

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