TEHRAN Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hosted regional leaders on Saturday for a celebration of the ancient Persian New Year, in an apparent effort to push political ties to combat Iran's isolation.
Ahmadinejad hosted the presidents of Iraq, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan at the Sadabad palace in Tehran in a ceremony shown live on state television.
Nowruz is celebrated in all five countries, a cultural bloc with populations that speak closely related languages including Farsi, Dari, Tajik and Kurdish.
The Iranian calendar dates to the beginning of the Islamic era in 622 AD but Iranian months are solar not lunar. The new Iranian year is 1389.
"We are celebrating together Nowruz today and promoting the Nowruz banner as one of justice, freedom, equality and fraternity among all countries," Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a minority Kurd in Arab-dominated Iraq, said.
Ahmadinejad, whose policies have served to increase Iran's international isolation, talked of "collective cooperation" among countries of the bloc.
"It is a cause of joy that through collective cooperation Nowruz became global," he said.
U.S. President Barack Obama made a video address to Iranians on the occasion of Nowruz, which fell on March 21, this year and last year in which he offered dialogue with Tehran to resolve longstanding political conflicts.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have so far avoided a direct response to the offer.
Washington and its allies want another round of U.N. sanctions on Iran over its nuclear energy program, which they fear is aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Tehran denies this intention saying it wants electricity.
Iran, one of the world's biggest oil and gas producers, has turned to Asian countries for economic cooperation as Western firms avoid investing in the country of more than 70 million people because of U.S. and U.N. sanctions.
(Reporting by Hashem Kalantari and Ramin Mostafavi, writing by Andrew Hammond, editing by Michael Roddy)