March 20, 2009 / 4:03 AM / 8 years ago

Obama offers new start with Iran

<p>President Obama addresses the Iranian people in a frame grab of a videotaped speech released by the White House just after midnight, early March 20, 2009.The White House/Handout</p>

WASHINGTON/TEHRAN (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama made his warmest offer yet of a fresh start in relations with Iran, which cautiously welcomed the overture but said on Friday it was waiting for "practical steps," not talk.

"The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right -- but it comes with real responsibilities," Obama said in an unprecedented video message released to Middle East broadcasters to mark the Iranian New Year.

"...that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization."

Relations have been almost deep-frozen for decades, and remain blighted by differences over Iran's nuclear program, Iraq, Israel and other issues.

In separate New Year messages to Iranians, neither Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei nor President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad mentioned Obama's offer. Khamenei said world powers had been persuaded they could not block Iran's nuclear progress.

Aliakbar Javanfekr, aide to Ahmadinejad, told Reuters: "The Iranian nation has shown that it can forget hasty behavior but we are awaiting practical steps by the United States.

"The Obama administration so far has just talked," he said, calling for "fundamental changes in his policy toward Iran."

The United States accuses Tehran of backing militant groups and seeking to develop a nuclear bomb under cover of a civilian atomic power program -- a charge Iran denies.

Javanfekr said Iran welcomed "the interest of the American government to settle differences." But he said the United States "should realize its previous mistakes and make an effort to amend them."

Washington's sanctions against Tehran were "wrong and need to be reviewed." Its backing for Israel, Iran's main enemy in the region, was "not a friendly gesture."

The White House distributed the Obama video with Farsi subtitles and posted it on its website. It was not shown or mentioned on Iran's main state television news, but was reported by Iranian news agencies.

"I think it's important that the president wanted to deliver this unique message directly to the people and to the leaders to understand that there's a rightful place in the community of nations ... without terror or arms or violence, and that, through peaceful actions, the two countries can work together toward their mutual ends," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.

"Mixed Messages"

France and Germany, which with Britain have led unsuccessful European Union efforts to persuade Iran to give up uranium enrichment, both welcomed the Obama initiative.

<p>President Obama addresses the Iranian people in a frame grab of a videotaped speech released by the White House just after midnight, early March 20, 2009.The White House/Handout</p>

"I think the message reflects exactly what the Europeans have always wanted -- that an offer is being made to Iran and... (I hope) that this is being used," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at an EU summit in Brussels.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said: "For my part I remain convinced that with a barrel of Brent (crude oil) well under $50 the policy of sanctions remains relevant, while at the same time there is need for dialogue."

Mohammad Hassan Khani, assistant professor of international relations at Tehran's Imam Sadiq University, described Obama's message as a positive gesture but noted it came only a week after the extension of U.S. economic sanctions.

"This is somehow conflicting and making people here confused," he said.

Obama has already expressed a readiness to have face-to-face diplomatic contacts with Tehran, a major shift from former President George W. Bush's policy of trying to isolate a country he once branded part of an "axis of evil."

Ahmadinejad has demanded Washington apologize for decades of "crimes" against the Islamic Republic. Tehran also says it cannot let down its guard as long as U.S. troops are posted on its borders in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Analysts have said that Iran is setting tough conditions for dialogue to buy time for its ponderous, opaque decision-making process. Adding to uncertainty, Iran holds a presidential election in June that could strengthen moderate voices backing detente over more hardline opponents.

Ultimately policy will be determined by the supreme leader, Khamenei.

Rapprochement with Washington would reverberate through the Middle East -- for example in Lebanon, where the Shi'ite movement Hezbollah, with a powerful guerrilla wing, is backed by Tehran.

"Although it is a timid overture, it is a good beginning, particularly for Lebanon," said Ousama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.

Obama made no specific offers, but said he wanted "a future with renewed exchanges among our people and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce."

"This won't be reached easily," he acknowledged.

The United States cut off diplomatic ties with Iran during a 1979-1981 crisis, when militant Iranian students held 52 U.S. diplomats hostage at the American embassy for 444 days.

Obama said earlier this year he was ready to extend a hand of peace to Iran if it "unclenched its fist." His administration has said it will invite Tehran to a conference on Afghanistan this month. Iran has said it will consider the invitation.

Additional reporting by Zahra Hosseinian and Fredrik Dahl in Tehran and Alistair Lyon in Beirut; writing by Mark Trevelyan; editing by Chris Wilson

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