/ 20 March 2009

Obama seeks ‘new beginning’ with Iran

United States President Barack Obama on Friday launched a historic direct appeal to the Iranian people, urging an end to decades of animosity and offering “honest” engagement with the Islamic Republic.

A top adviser to Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad welcomed Obama’s olive branch, but urged concrete action from Washington to recognise and repair “past mistakes”.

“My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community,” Obama said in a video message marking the Iranian New Year, Nowruz.

In a new decisive break with his predecessor, President George W Bush, Obama called the celebrations a time of “new beginnings”.

He said he wanted “to speak clearly to Iran’s leaders” about the need for a new era of “engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect”.

Obama said he was committed to pursuing “constructive ties” with Iran, which could take its “rightful place” in the world if it renounced terror and embraced peace.

“For nearly three decades relations between our nations have been strained,” he said. “But at this holiday we are reminded of the common humanity that binds us together.”

The two nations have not had diplomatic ties since 1980, just after Iran’s Islamic revolution and the taking of US diplomats as hostages for more than a year.

Bush lumped Iran in his “Axis of Evil” with North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, then led international accusations that Iran is seeking to build a nuclear bomb. Iranian officials regularly refer to Washington as the “Great Satan”.

“We welcome the wish of the president of the United States to put away past differences,” said the Iranian president’s press adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr.

But he added: “The American administration has to recognise its past mistakes and repair them as a way to put away the differences.”

“If Obama shows willingness to take action, the Iranian government will not show its back to him,” Javanfekr said, condemning what he called the “hostile, aggressive and colonialist attitude of the American government”.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana voiced hope that Obama’s video message could open a “new chapter” in international relations with Iran.

“I think it is a very constructive message,” Solana told reporters in Brussels. “I hope it will open a new chapter in the relations with Tehran.”

“I hope very much that the Iranians will take good attention of what has been said by President Obama,” Solana stressed.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also welcomed the statement. “The start of substantive dialogue will facilitate the revival of trust in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.”

Without specifically restating US allegations of Iran’s support of terrorist activities or its nuclear program, Obama said “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, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilisation.

“And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create.”

Obama highlighted the potential for “greater opportunities for partnership and commerce.

“It’s a future where the old divisions are overcome, where you and all of your neighbors and the wider world can live in greater security and greater peace.”

Obama’s address clearly signaled his administration’s recognition of Iran as a potential negotiating partner, even though Obama has declined to take the military option off the table as a way of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Obama pledged during his election campaign last year to engage with Washington’s adversaries. During his January 20 inaugural address he promised the Muslim world he would “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”.

The Iranian president then encouraged Obama to hold meetings but urged him to “put an end to the expansionist policies” of the US.

Obama’s initiative is a tacit recognition that Iran is a key player in several hot-button issues, including how the US extricates itself from Iraq, tackling the Taliban in Afghanistan, and progress on the longstanding Middle East conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

The White House said a version of the video with Farsi subtitles was distributed to news outlets in the region on Friday. An online version also carries English and Farsi captions, it said. — AFP