TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran’s president said on Tuesday Tehran was ready for talks with the United States but demanded a fundamental change in U.S. policy, in his most measured remarks to America since President Barack Obama took office.
Obama said on Monday that he saw the possibility of diplomatic openings with Iran in the months ahead, marking a break with his predecessor George W. Bush.
The United States and its Western allies accuse Iran of seeking nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies. Despite a new approach, Obama’s administration has also warned Iran of tougher sanctions if it does not halt its disputed nuclear work.
“The new U.S. administration has announced that they want to produce change and pursue the course of dialogue,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a rally to mark the 30th anniversary of the Islamic revolution that ousted the U.S.-backed shah.
“It is quite clear that real change must be fundamental and not tactical. It is clear the Iranian nation welcomes real changes,” he said, adding: “The Iranian nation is ready to hold talks but talks in a fair atmosphere with mutual respect.”
Ahmadinejad did not refer to the tough conditions he mentioned on previous occasions, a more measured approach that analysts said was likely to be welcomed by Obama and his team.
“On the face of it, it seems to be a significant signal, an opening that will encourage the Obama administration that they (Iranians) are actually willing to sit down,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
An Iranian political analyst said: “Obama’s tone was soft, his tone couldn’t be harsh.”
Ultimately, policy will not be decided by the president but by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all matters of state in the Islamic Republic. He tends to look for a consensus in the political elite, analysts say.
Khamenei has, so far, kept silent on Obama and his overture.
Obama said in January America was prepared to extend a hand of peace if Iran “unclenched its fist.” Ahmadinejad responded by demanding Washington withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and apologize for what he said were U.S. “crimes” against Iran.
Ahmadinejad has a presidential election to contest in June, which will pit him against former President Mohammad Khatami, who pushed for detente with the West during his 1997-2005 term.
Ties with Washington have already become a hot topic of political debate as the election race takes shape. Some listening to Ahmadinejad, detected a hint of campaigning.
“Ahmadinejad can play a helpful role in the improvement of Iran-America ties. He can also use this issue as a winning card in the upcoming presidential election,” said 24-year-old student Mostafa Jabbari.
Many Iranians are tired of isolation but some say Iran needs a hard-liner to win U.S. concessions not a moderate like Khatami, whose reforming efforts were mostly blocked by conservatives.
Speaking to reporters after meeting Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani in Madrid on Sunday, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said: “They (Iranians) think the American attitude is positive, and they are just waiting for that attitude to manifest itself in some gesture.”
But the election race could encourage the United States and Iran to tread cautiously as they await the result, analysts say.
In his speech broadcast on state television, Ahmadinejad also turned to some of his more typical language to criticize the West, saying nations who sought to monopolize power, impose sanctions and threaten military action had not succeeded.
The U.N. Security Council has slapped three rounds of sanctions on Iran and U.S. sanctions have been tightened because Tehran has refused to rein in its nuclear work.
Intelligence Minister Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei said a bomb was defused on Tuesday in the western city of Hamedan, “planted by the enemies of the revolution” and targeting those celebrating the 30th anniversary, ISNA news agency reported.
He did point a finger but Iran has often blamed Washington in the past for backing plots to destabilize Iran.
Obama’s administration, like Bush‘s, has refused to rule out military action if needed but says it wants tough diplomacy.
“We will be looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table face-to-face,” Obama said, adding Iran must stop pursuing nuclear weapons, end support for terrorist groups and cease “bellicose language” toward Israel.
Washington broke ties with Iran shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution when radical students stormed the U.S. embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
Additional reporting by Hashem Kalantari and Hossein Jaseb in Tehran, Alistair Lyon in Beirut and Jason Webb in Madrid; Editing by Ralph Boulton