The US Secretary of State gave a speech Mar. 17 potentially very important to American oil companies now locked out of Iran.

The US Secretary of State gave a speech Mar. 17 potentially very important to American oil companies now locked out of Iran.

At a forum sponsored by the American-Iranian Council, Madeleine K. Albright outlined a sharp turn toward normalization of relations between her country and the Islamic republic.

For oil companies, her remarks were important more at the conceptual than at the substantive level. On the latter, she announced three steps:

  • Removal of bans on purchase and import by Americans of Iranian carpets and food products.
  • More contact between American and Iranian scholars, professional artists, athletes, and nongovernmental organizations.
  • Efforts to conclude global settlement of legal claims between the two countries.

Notably absent from the list was removal of the ban on investment by US oil companies in the many large projects that Iran has made accessible to international capital.

But Albright's conceptual remarks at least pointed in that direction. They explicitly acknowledged that the US approach to Iran remains frozen in the memory of Americans taken captive during the Islamic revolution of 1979 and held for more than a year. And they explicitly - and refreshingly - acknowledged that Iran has changed since then.

"The bottom line is that Iran is evolving on its own terms and will continue to do so," the secretary said.

She acknowledged Iranian grievances against the US, including US complicity in the 1953 overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammed Massadeh and subsequent support for the repressive Shah.

"It is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs," Albright said. She added that "aspects of US policy toward Iraq" during that country's war with Iran in the 1980s "appear now to have been regrettably short-sighted, especially in light of our subsequent experiences with [Iraqi Pres.] Saddam Hussein."

She also asserted US desires, including compensation for acts of terrorism supported by the Iranian government, starting with the embassy takeover from which the hostage crisis emerged.

And she declared that the bases for Washington's longstanding complaints against the Islamic republic - support for terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, opposition to Middle East peace, and human rights violations - are global, not specifically American, values.

Iranians need to hear and heed that message if their country is to knit itself back into the global fabric, as the elected administration of Pres. Mohammed Khatami seems inclined to do.

"Neither Iran, nor we, can forget the past," Albright said. "It has scarred us both. But the question both countries now face is whether to allow the past to freeze the future or to find a way to plant the seeds of a new relationship that will enable us to harvest shared advantages in years to come, not more tragedies."

Through this speech, the US government has steered relations with Iran in a constructive direction. It is Khatami's turn to respond with constructive steps from the Iranian side. Facing continuing opposition from shadowy factions that profit from Iranian isolation, he has no easy task.

But Albright's welcome acknowledgment of past US mischief should help Khatami keep the popular support he needs in his conflict with oppressive influences in the Islamic leadership.

For oil companies, the challenge is to make certain that in whatever discussions occur over the future "shared advantages" Albright mentioned, oil and gas are part of the harvest.

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