Last updated: March 20, 2009 7:45 am

Obama seeks ‘new day’ in Tehran relations

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President Barack Obama has taken an important step towards engagement with Iran, using a video message to hold out the promise of a “new day” in relations between Washington and Tehran after three decades of hostility and mistrust.

In a video address that stressed that American respect for the Iranian nation and included an Iranian new year’s greeting in Farsi as well as praise for the medieval poet Saadi, Mr Obama made a point of speaking to the “leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” as well as “the people”.

The Iranian leadership will see in his words an acceptance of the regime, marking a significant shift from the attitude of the previous George W. Bush administration, which was suspected of seeking regime change in Tehran.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said the video marked the first time a leading US decision maker had used the term Islamic republic. “Instead they used terms like Iranian regime, which implied non–recognition and signalled that the option of regime change remained intact.” In remarks quoted by agencies on Friday, Aliakbar Javanfekr, an adviser to Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran’s president, welcomed Mr Obama’s message but suggested that Washington also had to
“recognise its past mistakes and repair them as a way to put away the differences”.

Calling for a fundamental change in US behaviour, he said sanctions were “wrong and need to be reviewed”.

In his video Mr Obama acknowledged the history of strained relations and set out an alternative vision of “renewed exchanges among our people and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce”.

He said Washington wanted “the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations”. But he also warned: “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.”

Despite the allusion to terrorism, the US president omitted specific references to the problems that most trouble Iran’s relationship with the US and its allies – Tehran’s nuclear programme, its links to groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah, and its hostility towards Israel.

Mr Obama’s remarks contrast sharply with the comments of Mr Bush, who marked Nowruz in 2008 by claiming that Iran’s leaders had “declared they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people” – an unsubstantiated allegation later dismissed by the White House as “shorthand”.

Mr Parsi said the US president also broke with Mr Bush in addressing Iran’s leaders as well as its people. “Obama is not trying to utilise the internal divisions that exist,” he said.

Mr Obama’s message will raise the pressure on Iran to reciprocate with its own
positive moves.

Until now, the reaction of the regime to Mr Obama’s election has been cautious, even sceptical. This month Ayatollah Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, said Mr Obama was following the same path as Mr Bush on Israel.

Iran has also criticised the US’s continued emphasis on sanctions as an instrument for dealing with the nuclear dispute. US reluctance to engage with Mr Ahmadi-
Nejad, who will compete for re-election in June, is one factor complicating Mr Obama’s diplomatic efforts, amid concerns that direct engagement with his government could have an impact on the poll.

But Washington has invited Iran to a conference on Afghanistan this month, in a bid for a more constructive relationship ahead of widely anticipated negotiations on the nuclear dossier.

In Tehran, an Iranian political analyst who asked not to be named described Mr Obama’s address as a “major step forward”, “adding: “It seems the US is finally recognising Iran’s status at least in the region.”

Mr Obama’s message of respect for Iran also won favour among Iranians on the street of Tehran, although few knew about it beforehand.

“It is better to have relations with the US,” said Farideh, a 36-year-old housewife buying goldfish for the new year. She praised Mr Obama for taking a “step in removing
animosities.”

Israel also conveyed its own message to Iran on Friday on the occation of Nowruz. But the words of Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, were starkly different from the US
president’s and called on Iranians to overthrow their government and rejoin the “family of enlightened nations”.

Additional reporting by Tobias Buck in Jerusalem

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