US apology paves way for Iranian pistachios, carpets

They were words that Iranians have long waited to hear from American officials, and they sounded very much like an apology.

In an American initiative to boost the chances of Iran-US dtente after decades of estrangement - and after elections in Iran last month that brought two decades of conservative control in parliament to an end - sanctions were lifted last week against Iranian carpets, pistachios, and caviar.

But far more significant, Iranians say, is US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's attention, for the first time, to historical grievances of American meddling in Iran.

"In the Iranian psyche, these issues are far more important than sanctions, so this will have a great impact," says Nasser Hadian-Jazy at the University of Tehran. He compares their importance in Iran with the days of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that few Americans can forget: the hostage-taking of US diplomats for 444 days.

Despite certain opposition from hard-line clerics, who still consider the US the "Great Satan," this apology is "good enough to bring down psychological and symbolic barriers to improve relations," he says.

Though the US still accuses Iran of what it calls "objectionable" policies of supporting terrorism, opposing the Mideast peace process, and pursuing nuclear weapons, Dr. Albright also struck a contrite chord that few in Iran thought possible.

A CIA-backed coup in 1953, Albright said, was "clearly a setback" for Iran that partly explains continued resentment. "Sustained" US backing of the regime of the Shah, which "brutally repressed dissent," didn't help either.

American backing of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, she added, has proved "regrettably shortsighted," and the US "must bear its fair share of responsibility" for the US-Iran hostility.

"Unfortunately, she is still harping on terrorism, the peace process, and weapons of mass destruction," says a senior European diplomat in Tehran. "but the US is getting more pragmatic and realistic. It seems there are new people writing the speeches - this is quite a departure for the Americans."

Though Iranian New Year celebrations began almost immediately after the speech - a time when the country effectively shuts down for two weeks - Albright's call "to join us in writing a new chapter in our shared history" prompted a foreign-ministry spokesman in Tehran to respond that it was "positive and welcome."

Iran's supreme spiritual leader Sayed Ali Khamenei, however, who has final say in all foreign-policy matters, did not mention the issue in a New Year's speech.

"A lot of people were afraid that Khamenei would come up with something hardline to dash these hopes, but his silence means that he tacitly approves," says an Iranian analyst in Tehran. "Maybe in your mind it was in the 1950s, ages ago in the time of the dinosaurs, but it's still fresh in the Iranian context."

"It's heartening to see both sides addressing the real issues," the analyst adds.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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