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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama accused Iran on Tuesday of imposing an "electronic curtain" on its citizens and promised new U.S. steps aimed at helping to ease the Iranian people's access to the Internet and social media.
Speaking directly to ordinary Iranians in a video message marking Nowruz, the Persian new year celebration, Obama acknowledged "continued tensions between our two countries," which stem mostly from Iran's defiance over its nuclear program.
But he insisted that Americans want a dialogue with Iranians. "There is no reason for the United States and Iran to be divided from one another," he said.
Obama's overture to the Iranian people was the latest step in Washington's push to ratchet up pressure on Tehran. He has urged Israel to hold off on any attack on Iran's nuclear sites to allow more time for sanctions and diplomacy to work.
Renewing accusations of Iran's suppression of its people, Obama said Iranians were "denied the basic freedom to access the information that they want." He cited blocking of television and radio signals, monitoring of computers and cell phones and censoring of the Internet.
"Because of the actions of the Iranian regime, an electronic curtain has fallen around Iran," Obama said in the video address, which was transmitted in Farsi as well as English.
"Today, my administration is issuing new guidelines to make it easier for American businesses to provide software and services into Iran that will make it easier for the Iranian people to use the Internet," he said.
The steps appeared relatively modest, and it was unclear how much of it could move forward without Iran's cooperation.
The U.S. Treasury said its Office of Foreign Assets Control had spelled out a range of Internet services and software that may be exported to Iran, including online personal messenger services and supporting software, as well as browsers, document readers, personal data storage and mobile applications.
In his video message, Obama alluded to the "Arab spring" uprisings that have swept the Middle East over the past year, sometimes fueled by communication on social networking sites.
"We have learned once more that suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away," he said.
Mass protests erupted in Iran against the disputed 2009 reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the demonstrations were crushed by Iranian security forces who jailed scores of activists.
Obama urged Iran to respect its people's rights "just as it has a responsibility to meet its obligations with regard to its nuclear program." He said Iran would be "welcomed once more among the community of nations" if it met those commitments.
The United States and other Western powers are demanding that Iran halt uranium enrichment, which they fear could be used to develop nuclear weapons. Iran says it want nuclear technology strictly for electricity generation and medical purposes.
Additional reporting by Alister Bull; Editing by Eric Walsh