Why U.S. Is Making Overtures Toward Iran

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Washington's apology for past wrongs may count for more than the accompanying trade concessions in repairing relations with Iran. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is scheduled to deliver a speech on Iran policy Friday, in which she'll reach out for a rapprochement with Tehran by offering to end sanctions against certain luxury imports and to negotiate the rapid unfreezing of billions of dollars of Iranian assets impounded in the U.S. after the Islamic revolution of 1979. More important, perhaps, she will acknowledge previous U.S. mistakes in dealing with Iran — notably CIA involvement in the 1953 coup that overthrew an elected government and restored the monarchy, which was finally overthrown in 1979, and the Reagan administration's support for Iraq during that country's eight-year war with Iran.

Albright's initiative is designed to create an opening for President Mohamed Khatami, who is committed to normalizing Iran's relations with the West and whose supporters won a landslide victory in recent parliamentary elections, to begin a dialogue with Washington. Before his recent electoral victory, Khatami, with an eye cast over his right shoulder toward his fiercely anti-American conservative opponents, had rebuffed U.S. efforts. But anti-American sentiment in Iran has a basis in the country's history — the U.S. brought Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi to power and then helped keep him there for decades before Iranians finally took to the streets to overthrow him. Hard-liners among them immediately seized the U.S. embassy and launched the hostage crisis in a deliberate effort to cut all ties with Washington and prevent it from having any influence over events in Iran. By acknowledging the error of U.S. support for the shah, Albright is offering reassurance that Washington has mended its ways and wants a relationship on new terms, for which it will be easier for Khatami to win acceptance. As will the tantalizing prospect of recovering billions of dollars and doing business with the world's most powerful economy. After all, Iran's economic decline in the '90s had persuaded even many conservatives that it was time to start doing business again with the West. Even, perhaps, with an apologetic "Great Satan."