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DATE=4/8/2000 TYPE=ON THE LINE TITLE=ON THE LINE: THE U.S. AND IRAN NUMBER=1-00837 EDITOR=OFFICE OF POLICY - 619-0037 CONTENT= THEME: UP, HOLD UNDER AND FADE Anncr: On the Line - a discussion of United States policy and contemporary issues. This week, "The U.S. and Iran." Here is your host, Robert Reilly. Host: Hello and welcome to On the Line. The recent stunning victory of Islamic reformists in Iran's parliamentary elections has led many to believe that the time is right for a rapprochement between the United States and Iran. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave a speech calling for "a new and better relationship" between the U.S. and Iran. Mrs. Albright itemized a list of historical grievances on both sides and identified current obstacles to improved relations. It remains to be seen if the climate has changed sufficiently for the U.S. and Iran to overcome two decades of hostility. Joining me today to discuss the history and future of U.S.-Iran relations are three experts. Robert Pelletreau is a former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and chairman of the American-Iranian Council. David Wurmser is director of the Middle East studies program at the American Enterprise Institute. And Jon Alterman is a Middle East expert at the U.S. Peace Institute. Gentlemen welcome to the program. Mr. Pelletreau, your organization actually hosted Madeleine Albright when she gave that very interesting speech last month. In it, she itemized the historical grievances: the U-S participation in the Mossadegh affair in 1953, support of the Shah, support of Iraq during the Iraq-Iran War. Looking back upon these historical events, does the United States have something to apologize for? Were we pursuing legitimate interests at the time? Have we made a confession now that Iraq is accepting? What exactly is going on there? Pelletreau: I would rather put it in terms of the Iranians feel they have genuine grievances on this score and they want some recognition that those grievances are acknowledged on the U-S side. The United States also has some grievances with respect to Iran. And this is not an unusual process when two countries or two peoples who have been estranged from each other start getting back together. You've got to begin to remove some of this underbrush of misunderstanding and emotional grievance. I think that is what Secretary Albright was trying to do. Host: But how do you do that? I mean if they think we were wrong, we weren't the only players in 1953. Great Britain was, the Iranian people were. How do you clear that underbrush? Pelletreau: You begin by recognizing that there is a grievance. And Secretary Albright did recognize that the United States has made some mistakes in its past relations with Iran. Host: Do you agree that those were mistakes, David Wurmser? Wurmser: Well, I think that there might have been mistakes in the past, but I think that we ought to put this in perspective. And for that reason I think probably that what Mrs. Albright did was inappropriate. Let me put it this way. The Iranian people are consistently showing the United States and the world that they are fed up with their government and they are fed up with excuses their government is making for their failure. And the government continues to return to the same old tired slogans as to why Iran is oppressed, and so forth. And suddenly, the United States weighs in and says: "well, your government was right all along. We've been bad to you and you're right to feel angry at us." Just at the moment when the Iranian people are saying: "that's it; we don't care about that anymore. We care about now, here, today and the near future." So I think we've done exactly the opposite. We almost sided with the government against those forces of change in Iran, which may drive a revolution in the end. Host: Jon Alterman, what do you think about that? Alterman: I don't think that's right. I think what we are seeing now in Iran is a resurgence of Iranian nationalism. Iran went through a period, after the revolution, when Iran was about Islamic revolution, not only in Iran but Islamic revolution around the world. They're stepping away from that. What we're seeing in the streets, what we're seeing when we talk to people in Iran, what we're seeing when we listen to Iranians is that they're talking about being Iranian more. They're talking about their nation. They're talking about national interests. I was in Iran two months ago and this is something that you hear a lot of. The things she apologizes for deal with Iran's Iranianness. It deals with their nationalism. It's not the wrong thing to talk about. In fact, we should be hoping that Iran becomes a nation with nationalism, and deal with it on the basis of its national interests, and not deal with it on the terms of Islamic revolution around the world. Those are not terms that help us; those are not terms that help our relationship; those are not terms that help us deal with the concerns we have about Iranian behavior. Host: Can you just refine that point a little more for us? In your conversations with Iranians recently, by saying they were more Iranian, what does that mean? Alterman: Iran is a country with millennia of civilization. It has its own literature; it has its own language. This is a country which feels a depth of cultural history that most countries don't have. China is another example of a country, also interestingly one with which the U-S had a long process of trying to right its relationship after separation. What we are seeing more and more is people are talking about being Iranian; people are talking about reintroducing the literature. People are talking about how it's hard to leave Iran once you have grown up in Iran; once you've been educated as an Iranian, you can never leave your country. You are starting to hear more and more of that, and that's pushing the mullahs away from a control over everything and putting them, in many ways, back into talking more about religious issues, and not so much about other issues in society. Host: Let's get back to Secretary Albright's speech, which you hosted, Mr. Pelletreau. How do you think it's been received in Iran? It seems to have occasioned an extraordinary array of reactions from within the country. Pelletreau: That's exactly what has happened. The newspapers are debating it; the society is debating it; students are debating it. It is an element now in Iranian discourse. You can argue whether that is good or bad at this point. But I think we have to wait for this process of absorption to go on for a while before we can expect more official Iranian reactions. There should not be an expectation that Iran is going to step out right away and react in one so-quick manner to these gestures. Host: What do you think of their reaction so far to these specific policy gestures, and that is to allow trade in Iranian carpets, foodstuff, and caviar? That gesture has provoked some reaction. Pelletreau: I think they feel that is a positive gesture. Likewise, the gesture toward working to a global settlement of claims is a positive one that they are responding positively to. What you see in the debate is whether Iran should be responding in a more positive way, or whether Iran should continue to hold back for a while. It's obvious that in the electoral process, in the evolutionary process that's going on in Iran, there are higher priorities than relations with the United States. Host: It's interesting, David Wurmser, Secretary Albright also mentioned the grievances of the United States, and she also pointed out that key institutions within Iran, the security forces and the military, are in the hands of a leader who's not democratically elected. And as a consequence, some of the responses within Iran are that she is interfering in our internal affairs. What do you think of the other aspects of what she said and how they are being received? Wurmser: It's a tough point to make, given our overall policy toward other regimes in the region. I do think that she was right in making the point that democracy matters. The voice of the people matters. And in that, I think there is a major positive benefit to be had. She differentiated to some extent between the Iranian people and the Iranian government. And I think that is a key distinction that has to be made here, because it drives everybody's interpretation. Whether or not there are forces from on the street pushing the government to reform and the government is in despair try to preempt this change, and then how that plays with U-S policy. Or whether the government itself has realized certain things aren't working and they are one of the forces moving this change forward, and that, therefore, the moderation is genuine, not a reaction to a pressure that they cannot control anymore. That drives a different policy. Her differentiating between the two, I think, is a hopeful sign. Although I do think, in Iran, the first question that will be raised is what about our support for Saudi Arabia, and so forth. So it is going to be a tough point to make. Alterman: I think that David Wurmser's point is exactly right. What we're looking for in Iran is a government which is responsive to the people of Iran and accountable both to the people of Iran and to the global community. There is a tendency among some people in the U-S government to cheer for[President Mohammad] Khatami, and he's become a popular figure, not only tremendously popular in Iran but also popular around the world. He's a smiling face. He seems to be a person you can deal with. But our real interest is not in the triumph of any individual party or faction in Iran. What we're looking for is for Iran to become a place with accountability, with responsiveness to its people. That's a kind of Iran, not necessarily an ally of the United States, but an Iran where we can talk about mutual interests and sort out our differences. And that's really the goal of this process. Host: How far along do you think we have come toward that goal? And do you think that the initiatives that Mr. Pelletreau was just talking about were the appropriate ones? Alterman: I think they are appropriate. The Iranians have been talking about them for more than a year. The Iranians themselves have signaled that these would be helpful to move this process forward. We are in a process; we're in a process that's going to take, I think, a number of years to work through. We have serious concerns. They have serious concerns about our behavior. There is a lot of hope that movement in the Arab-Israeli peace process may make some of the differences between us a little easier for both sides to stomach. I think we are in a multi-year process, but ultimately a process that will work out. Pelletreau: It may not take quite as long as you're suggesting, Jon, because what is clear is that change is coming to Iran not so much because of outside pressures but because of an internal evolution. And so many of the young people in Iran, born since the revolution, don't have all the historical baggage or the historical perspective. Their focus is internal and they are really a driving force in this gradual, steady increase in political power of the reformers in this obviously non-monolithic government. It's a government with a number of power centers. Wurmser: I think this is a very important point. And I think that this is something that tells us something about our policy overall in the region. You are seeing in Iran, as well as in a number of other countries in this region, a growing sense among people that, look, you've burdened us with the Arab-Israeli conflict, you've burdened us with this hatred of the West, you've burdened us with all this externally-driven state of emergency. Enough! When are you going to turn to us? When are you going to turn and make government function properly for the governance of the people, rather than constantly being mobilized in these emergency states, these unusual sorts of political circumstances for the sake of some larger ideal. And I think Iran here represents perhaps one of the leading forces among the youth in the region, who are just simply fed up. Host: Did you get that feeling from your recent visit? Alterman: The youth, on the one hand, are fed up. They are a large part of the population, but more than being fed up -- and number of people have talked about Iran sort of seething when there were disturbances last summer -- some people thought Iran on the verge of a revolution. When I talked to people on all parts of the political spectrum, I saw no support for revolution. Iranians want an evolution toward a better government, from everywhere. And what people define as a better government varies. But everybody wants a better government through an evolutionary process. How long that process takes, I don't know. Certainly the Majlis, after the recent parliamentary elections, we are going to see a parliament which will take a different role in the government, a parliament which may, in fact, be more separate from the rest of government than any parliament we have seen in Iran since the revolution. There're certainly fewer clerics in the government than has ever been the case before. How all these forces work out, how the different power centers sort out their power is something that we're going to have to watch over the coming months and years. But that's the crucial issue. And I think we're going to be dealing with some variant of this system, rather than some sort of counter-revolutionary system. I don't think that's in the cards at all. Pelletreau: Wouldn't it be ironic if what we were all fearing in the 80's -- that Iran would be the source of a wave of fanaticism spreading out over the entire region -- instead becomes Iran as the messenger of reconciliation of Islam and democracy that's spreading out over the region. That's something interesting to contemplate. Host: Along those lines, could you comment on how Iran is behaving in the region now, in terms of its relations with the Gulf States and so forth? Pelletreau: That's right. Iran, since the election of President Khatami in 1997, has begun reaching out across the Gulf to restore a certain relationship that had been badly disrupted and broken off. And we've seen some of the Arab governments responding positively, particularly the Saudis. And this can have many positive benefits. It isn't going to remove the mutual suspicions; it isn't going to remove the history of Iranian ambitions to hegemony in the region. Host: It isn't going to remove the U-S troops in Saudi-Arabia. Pelletreau: Not at all. But if the states on both sides of the Gulf are talking with each other and beginning to develop areas of common interest, it's going to be a somewhat less acute security situation than when they were not. There are still many outstanding issues. The islands issues with the United Arab Emirates is one that the Arab side of the Gulf feels very strongly about. Alterman: The goal of Iranian foreign policy in the region is reducing tensions. The goal of Iranian foreign policy is not necessarily to play a lesser role in the region, but not always to be chafing at everybody. I think this policy has been generally successful. It's won them a lot of advantages in their interaction with other people in the region. And I think ultimately, it's the same idea of reducing tensions that will drive their policy with the United States, not so much to make agreements with the United States on our common interests, like Iraq, where we have a lot of common interests, but rather they don't want to be fighting the U-S. And ultimately, the U-S doesn't want to be fighting them in the Gulf either. Host: Terrorism, of course, is one of the sore points between the United States and Iran. And there were very sharp words last year from our Assistant Secretary of State, Martin Indyk, when Mr. Khatami met in Damascus with some of the terrorist groups. However, the United States recently said that Iran itself is the victim of terrorism from the Mujahedin-e Khalq and that we have common interests in combating terrorism. My question is: on those really critical tough points that Secretary Albright mentioned -- weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process -- do you see an evolutionary improvement there, a change of policy, or what are the possibilities? Wurmser: I think this cuts right down to the central point. If you look at these issues, they are almost exact replicas of our debate from 1985 to 1990 about the Soviet Union. The first question that came up is: is there a third way? Can we see a moderating way for the Soviet regime to become Communism or socialism with a human face? What we learned is that when it goes down, it goes all the way down. And the first thing that we saw was an ideological break down inside the Soviet regime. Communists themselves said: this doesn't square. The same thing is happening in Iran. This regime is ideologically in deep, deep trouble. Even mullahs are saying: you know, we're going to lose Islam if we don't get Islam out of the government. And many of them are appealing to the sixth Imam Jafar, [Sadegh] who laid down the whole idea of separating Islam from governance and making it more of an exemplary movement, and so forth. All these issues will essentially take care of themselves once there is a substantial change in government in Iran. But I am dubious that this regime, given its current construct, which, by the way, is a very revolutionary interpretation of Shiite Islam -- I'm not convinced that there is a third way. Host: Let me give a quick reaction for Jon Alterman. Alterman: I differ with David on two points. First, I don't think that the Soviet Union is the appropriate parallel. Generally, if you look at revolutions, after twenty years, revolutions go through leadership transitions, they go through generational transitions. You have a problem sustaining the ideological vigor of a revolution. That's true of all revolutions. The Soviet Union fell after seventy years. I don't think we are seeing that in Iran. I think what we are seeing is a need to rationalize the system, a need to make it work better, and I think that, in the interest of making it work better, the Iranians certainly will deal on the terrorism issue. I think that a move in the Arab-Israeli peace process will make that a lot easier for both sides. Partly, you have to agree on what terrorism is. But I think that there are a lot of encouraging signs. Host: I'm afraid that's all the time we have this week. I'd like to thank our guests -- Robert Pelletreau, former assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs and chairman of the American-Iranian Council; David Wurmser from the American Enterprise Institute; and Jon Alterman from the U.S. Peace Institute -- for joining me this week to discuss U.S.-Iranian relations. This is Robert Reilly for On the Line. Anncr: You've been listening to "On the Line" - a discussion of United States policies and contemporary issues. This is --------. 07-Apr-2000 13:03 PM EDT (07-Apr-2000 1703 UTC) NNNN Source: Voice of America .