U.S. Official on U.S. Relations with Iran
U.S. Policy Toward Iran: Time For a Change?
Prepared for Delivery by Richard Roth
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs
Department of State
At the Middle East Policy Council Conference
December 12, 2000
I'm very pleased to have this opportunity to speak about our Iran
policy. More than 20 years after its revolution, Iran continues to
surprise, intrigue, infuriate and, simply, to compel the attention of
There has been a great deal of continuity in our policies over these
twenty years. Many of the same problems continue to complicate our
relations. But obviously the Iran of today is not the same Iran we saw
ten or five years ago. There have been discernible internal changes.
They include a series of increasingly free and fair elections, more
social freedoms, and a general trend to strengthening Iran's civil
The hesitant and uncertain nature of those changes has become all too
clear over the past six months, however. And I think most Iran
watchers agree that there is no easy way to predict Iran's short and
medium term political future. Iran has also moderated, in some areas,
its foreign policies, particularly in seeking rapprochement with
Europe and the Gulf Arab countries. In other areas of great concern to
the U.S. such as support for anti-Peace Process terrorist groups, and
the development of WMD and long-range missiles, there has been no
positive change, and in fact a trend toward increased efforts in each
of these areas.
Several core issues have driven United States policy toward Iran since
-- Iran's implacable opposition to the Peace Process, particularly its
overt and covert support for groups advocating and committing acts of
terrorism and other violent means to oppose the Peace Process.
-- Iran's aggressive pursuit of destabilizing weapons of mass
destruction (WMD) and long-range missile technology
-- Less than full Iranian respect for human rights, especially the
treatment of religious minorities.
These core issues, and our assessment of their importance, have not
changed. However, we have not failed to recognize that changes are
occurring in Iranian politics, especially on domestic policies. We,
like our European allies, have tried to view these developments as an
opportunity to explore ways to engage Iran on issues of mutual
interest and as a new means to pursue long-standing objectives. We
have also been able to broaden the way we see our interests with Iran.
-- We have sought to increase the non-official and semi-official
"people to people" exchanges between Iran and the U.S.
-- We have initiated some adjustments in our sanctions regime to reach
out to the Iranian people in areas where the economic and other
benefits of trade can most directly affect them.
-- We have supported certain Iranian diplomatic initiatives, such as
the "Dialogue among Civilizations," and Iran's constructive
participation in the 6 plus 2 dialogue on Afghanistan.
-- We have looked for opportunities to begin addressing the historical
issues that hinder understanding on both sides.
-- We have offered to explore a global settlement of all outstanding
legal claims between our two countries (often misleadingly termed
-- And we have sought quite unambiguously a direct, government to
government dialogue with Iran, without preconditions, to explore how
our two countries can push this further. Because while the differences
between the United States and Iran on policy issues are fairly clear,
however, the areas where we could have, or should have, common
interests, get much less attention. These areas potentially include
policies toward Iraq, the implications for stability of the Gulf,
Afghanistan, the security and independence of the states of Central
Asia, and global issues such as narcotics trafficking and the
If the United States and Iran ever arrive successfully at direct
diplomatic engagement, each could be expected at least initially to
defend its own national interests. However, in addition, each side
might find a more creative approach in which to address our common
interests. We do not believe that this can be accomplished through
competing press statements, or through intermediaries no matter how
sincere or well-intentioned.
Let me take a minute or two to review some of the criticism we hear
from the opposing sides of the Iran policy debate. There are those who
argue that the United States should lift all economic sanctions on
Iran, even if gradually, because they harm American businesses in
addition to damaging Iran. These critics hope that progress on the
economic front will open the way for the flag and productive political
relations. In an ideologically driven regime like the current one in
Iran, this formula is not apparent. Nevertheless, we are well aware of
the opportunity cost of economic sanctions and the new Administration
should review carefully a package of economic measures that could be
identified as incentives to encourage greater political dialogue.
While a worthy goal, our European allies have found this a very
difficult path to pursue with much success.
On the other hand, we continue to be painfully conscious these days,
of the active Iranian opposition to fundamental U.S. interests in the
region, namely stability of our friends and the success of the Middle
East Peace Process. We believe Iran has pursued a provocative policy
aimed at derailing the Peace Process, and consequently regional
stability. Also, Iran's aggressive WMD programs are potentially
destabilizing. Our policies, including our economic sanctions, are
designed to directly challenge Iran on this ground, and to encourage a
change in its policies.
From the other side of the debate, there are those who claim the
United States has been fooled by a sort of "phony" reform, that we
have jumped to support a reformist President who has little real
power. I'd like to say for the record that we have no favored
political leader or faction in Iran. We have undertaken a series of
very carefully calibrated and minimalist steps in response to clear
political and foreign policy changes in Iran at the macro level. Some
of these changes began to develop under a previous leadership. And
many of the positive social changes in Iran, such as the yet immature
trends toward greater openness and transparency, have been driven from
the bottom up by the Iranian people. What we are still waiting for is
for these trends to be adopted by Iran's ruling elite and to be
instituted throughout Iran's key institutions.
Who rules Iran is not nearly so important as what rules Iran will be
governed by. As the situation evolves within Iran I expect the new
Administration will try to be responsive to what rules emerge from the
Iranian leadership as one basis for improved relations.