TEHRAN Iran warned U.S. forces in Iraq on Wednesday that it would respond to any violation of Iranian airspace, a message analysts said seemed directed at the new U.S. president-elect more than neighboring American troops.
The Iranian army statement, reported by state radio, came after a cross-border raid last month by U.S. forces into Syria, a move that was condemned by Damascus and Tehran.
But an Iranian politician said the timing suggested it was directed at Barack Obama, who won Tuesday's U.S. vote, more than the U.S. military, and might reflect concern by hardliners in Iran who thrived on confrontation with Washington.
Obama has said he would toughen sanctions on Iran but has also held out the possibility of direct talks to resolve rows, which include a dispute over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
"Recently it has been seen that American army helicopters were flying a small distance from Iraq's border with Iran and, because of the closeness to the border, the danger of them violating Iran's border is possible," state radio reported.
"Iran's armed forces will respond to any violation," radio said, citing a statement from Iran's army headquarters.
Washington, which has not had diplomatic ties with Tehran since 1980, has accused Iran of funding, equipping and training militants in Iraq. Iran denies this and says security problems are due to the presence of U.S. troops who should quit Iraq.
"This is a clear message to the American president-elect because radicals are not very happy that Obama has been elected," said the Iranian politician.
He said Iran could have chosen to pass such a message through the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which handles U.S. interests in the absence of a U.S. mission. That route had been used in the past.
The two countries are also at loggerheads over Iran's disputed nuclear work. Washington says Tehran is seeking an atomic bomb. Tehran says it wants the technology to make electricity so that it can export more of its oil and gas.
Iranian government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham said he hoped Obama would make "fundamental changes in the approach of the United States toward global issues" and end "aggression toward other countries," state broadcaster IRIB reported.
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said, according to IRNA news agency: "The election of Barack Obama ... is a clear sign of the American people's wish and desire for fundamental changes in America's domestic and foreign policies."
Obama, like Bush, has not ruled out military action although he has criticized the outgoing administration for not pushing for more diplomacy and engagement with Iran.
"Change of political figures is not important by itself. What is more important is a change of American policy," Ali Aghamohammadi, a close aide to Iran's most powerful figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told Reuters.
Iran has warned it would respond to any attack on its territory by targeting U.S. interests and America's ally Israel, as well as closing the Strait of Hormuz, the waterway at the mouth of the Gulf and vital route for world oil supplies.
Some Iranians were enthusiastic about the U.S. vote.
"I hope that our relations with (America) will improve as Obama has talked of direct negotiations with the Iran," said Mona Saremi, a 22-year-old student.
But some analysts were cautious, saying Obama had to show he was offering more than a change in style from Bush. "It is for the Americans to show that something has changed, not the Iranians," Tehran University professor Mohammad Marandi said.
(Additional reporting by Zahra Hosseinian and Fredrik Dahl; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Louise Ireland)