March 13, 2002
It is an honor to be invited to speak before such a distinguished gathering.
The number of accomplished individuals in the audience today is a testament to the extraordinary achievements of the thriving Iranian-American community. You have enriched the United States with your many talents, and your cultural traditions have strengthened the diversity of our country.
You also have a critical role to play in serving as a bridge between Iran and the United States.
Today, I would like to share with you my views on United States policy toward Iran and the kind of relationship I believe Iran and the United States should have. To save you the suspense, the short answer is - a much better relationship than we currently enjoy.
I say this for one simple reason - I believe that an improved relationship with Iran is in the naked self-interest of the United States of America.
Iran sits in the geo-political heart of a region that has long been important to our security concerns.
On its Eastern frontier sits a newly-liberated Afghanistan where the military mission is far from over. Farther East is a nuclear-armed Pakistan that just a short while ago stood on the precipice of a potentially devastating conflict with its arch-rival India.
To the West is a recalcitrant Iraq, with a dangerous leader who Iranians grew to know all too well during the long and bloody Iran-Iraq war. To the North are the undemocratic, potentially energy-rich states of Central Asia and the conflict-ridden Caucasus.
To the South are several American allies that sit atop the largest known oil reserves on the face of the earth.
So it is not an understatement to say that the direction Iran takes in the coming years will have a significant impact upon American strategic interests in this region.
Clearly, we cannot speak of Iran's direction without addressing its internal political dynamics. Since President Khatami's election in 1997, Iran has been embroiled in a gradually escalating power struggle that the outside world has watched with considerable interest.
While elections haven't been perfect, the Iranian people have made clear in four separate ballots over four years that they are demanding fundamental change.
The result of these elections has been the creation of a divided government. An elected branch consisting of the parliament and the Presidency that, by definition, is more in touch with the will of the people.
Juxtaposed to that is an appointed branch which holds many of the key levers of power including the judiciary, security organizations, and other bodies populated by those whose vision largely revolves around the perpetuation of their own authority.
It is this hardcore clique which refuses to give way to the will of the people. Over the past few years they have thwarted the goals of Iranian reformers. They've arrested journalists. They've imprisoned close allies of the President, and often resorted to violence.
They've harassed and persecuted minorities in Iran - Jews and the Baha'i.
They direct policies that pose a threat to our interests. Not the least of which is that Iran continues to support terrorism and the escalation of violence in the Middle East.
Its recent involvement with the Karine-A arms smuggling incident is a reminder of the policies that Iran must abandon if there is to be a true rapprochement. And many questions remain unanswered about the role played by some Iranians in the Khobar Towers attack that left 19 US servicemen dead.
But shortly after September 11, ordinary Iranians held a spontaneous candlelight vigil in Tehran in solidarity with the victims. Yet some of Iran's leaders don't appear to understand how drastically the world has changed after September 11.
Their continuing support for groups such as Islamic Jihad puts them on the wrong side of the new fault-line separating civilization and those who seek chaos. As you all know, Iran is continuing an aggressive drive to develop weapons of mass destruction and long-range missile systems. In these efforts, it receives considerable foreign assistance, especially from Russia.
While support for terrorism appears to be directed by those in the hard-line branch of the government, the support for Iran's missile and nuclear weapons programs is more broad-based.
The reason is a combination of three main factors: first, fears over Iraq and to a far lesser degree, Pakistan. Second, the belief that nuclear weapons will enhance Iran's stature. Finally, we cannot dismiss the fact that some elements within the government see a potential blackmail value in the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missile capability.
Whatever the motivation, the United States must place the highest priority on preventing Iran from gaining such dangerous and destabilizing capabilities. There are a number of options for doing so.
We cannot simply dismiss Iran's security concerns. They've been the victims of chemical weapons attacks by Iraq. But the neighborhood has the potential to change for the better.
Already, the Taliban menace no longer threatens Iran. Next door, Pakistan's President is reigning in religious extremism.
And I believe that the U.S. will ultimately have to facilitate a regime-change in Iraq.
These three developments alone would dramatically alter Iran's security environment for the better.
We must also be willing to hold discussions with Iran to develop creative solutions as we did in North Korea. And we must step up our efforts to end support by Russian entities for Iranian nuclear and missile efforts. In my view, this hasn't received enough attention over the past year.
Clearly, although we must combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction to any country, the threat from Iran is not simply a function of capability, but of intention as well.
If Iran evolves in a more democratic direction and the U.S.-Iranian relationship improves, then the threat it poses certainly will be reduced.
This, then, raises the question of the ongoing power struggle underway in Iran.
The United States is not in a position to have a major impact on this struggle. Nor should we intervene in any direct way.
We should be mindful of the painful history between our two countries, which includes reported CIA support for a coup in 1953. And it still resonates with many Iranians, and it should counsel us to be extra-cautious.
Nonetheless, we should be clear about where we stand. We are squarely with the Iranian people in their desire for a democratic government and a democratic society.
Iran has a disproportionately young population. Half of its people were born after the Revolution.
These young people and many of their parents and grandparents have grown wary of Iran's isolation.
They want Iran to take its rightful place in the international community and to embrace a rapidly-changing world. They want the same kinds of social, political, and economic freedoms that others enjoy. And they deserve to have these aspirations fulfilled. As I said, we should have a better relationship with Iran. Unfortunately, that is not for us to decide. And it is unlikely to come about absent a change in the attitude or composition of the present Iranian regime.
While the Bush Administration continues the policy of its predecessors by seeking dialogue with Iran, some in Tehran have a different view.
Part of the government clearly wants to talk to us and has talked to us over Afghanistan for example. But hard-liners regard us as a useful bogeyman to continue to stir up the passions of their most zealous and ardent stalwarts.
So the question is what can we do from the outside to help the Iranian people realize their aspirations.
In my judgment, we must direct our policies in a way that they do not rest on the principle of reciprocity.
In other words, we should assume that the continuing power struggle will prevent Iran from responding to any particular American gestures. And take steps that are carefully calibrated with the aim of assisting those who seek change within Iran.
How do we do it? First, we must recognize that the most entrenched elements in Iran seek to perpetuate Iran's isolation through confrontation with the outside world.
Those who seek change want to increase Iran's international linkages.
Let me outline five specific steps the United States can take.
First, the Bush Administration should issue a general license to permit American non-governmental organizations to financially support a broad range of civil society, cultural, human rights, and democracy-building activities in Iran. Such funding is currently banned by Executive Order.
It is unfortunate that it is our own government, not hard-line clerics in Tehran, that have prevented practitioners of democracy in America from aiding their struggling counterparts in Iran.
Second, we should continue to work with Iran on matters of mutual interest as we did on Afghanistan.
It is true that some hard-line elements in Iran are clearly interested in stirring up trouble in Afghanistan, but the story that many don't know is that Iran and the United States coordinated their efforts on Afghanistan closely over the past several months.
The dialogue on Afghanistan should serve as a model and should be extended to other areas of mutual interest, like the future of Iraq - another topic for discussion and cooperation.
Third, the United States should acquiesce to Iran's bid to begin accession talks to the World Trade Organization. The process of accession would take several years, but Iran would have to make structural changes that would increase transparency and undermine the key power bases of the hard-liners.
Fourth, we should be willing to indirectly assist Iran on refugee and narcotics matters. Iran has a huge population of Afghan and Iraqi refugees. American non-governmental organizations that assist refugees are willing to help and should be supported in their efforts by our government.
Likewise, Iran has paid a heavy price in blood and treasure in battling narcotics traffickers on its eastern frontier. Iran has asked the international community for help and it makes sense to assist them through the United Nations.
Fifth, we should continue to encourage citizen exchanges. A track-two circuit has developed in recent years and it is important to keep it going. Organizations such as the American Iranian Council, the Open Society Institute, and the Nixon Center have played a critical role, and I applaud them.
I also applaud the President for his view that there should be a direct dialogue with Iran. In that regard, let me also extend an invitation in my capacity as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. I am prepared to receive members of the Iranian Majlis whenever its members would like to visit. If Iranian parliamentarians believe that's too sensitive, I'm prepared to meet them elsewhere.
Without speaking for any of my colleagues, I am confident that many of them would join in such an historic meeting. Indeed, some - including my friend Senator Arlen Specter - did participate in an earlier brief encounter at the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized by the American Iranian Council.
We should be under no illusions that these steps will by themselves have a decisive impact. The direction that Iran takes - the form of government it chooses - are ultimately matters for the Iranian people to settle.
As we all know, Nowruz marks the start of Spring. Let us hope that in this season of renewal that Iranians and Americans can find a way to build on shared interests and work constructively to overcome their differences peacefully.
I pledge to do my part and I know that all of you will lend your energies to this critical effort.
Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
Return to Top
Home | About Us | Resources | Press Releases | Federal Activity & Legislation
State & Local Activity | NFTC Lawsuit | Contact Us | Site Index