In video, Obama offers Iran a 'new day'

Posted in United States | 21-Mar-09 | Author: Alan Cowell| Source: International Herald Tribune

President Barack Obama addressing the Iranian people in a video frame grab.

Invoking art, history and "the common humanity that binds us," President Obama offered a "new day" in America's relationship with Iran, using an unusual videotaped message to appeal directly to Iranians for a shift away from decades of confrontation.

But he warned Iran's leaders that their access to what he called Iran's "rightful place in the community of nations" would not be advanced by threats or by "terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions."

The president's message - released with Farsi subtitles to some broadcasters in the Middle East and marking the Nowruz Spring holiday in Iran - echoed sentiments in Mr. Obama's first televised interview from the White House in January in which he hinted at a new openness toward Iran.

That message seemed far more explicit in the television broadcast , in which the President urged Iran to discuss "in mutual respect" the gamut of issues that has cast Iran and the United States on opposite sides of a gulf splitting the region. They include Iran's nuclear ambitions, its attitude to Israel and what the United States considers Tehran's support for terrorism. The message was released early Friday in Iran.

The president's overture drew an enthusiastic response from the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, who said he hoped it would lead to a "new chapter in relations with Iran."

But Iranian officials were more cautious, according to news reports, welcoming the president's desire to settle disputes with uncharacteristic alacrity, but insisting, as they have in the past, that the United States must first address Iran's grievances toward Washington.

Ali Akbar Javanfekr, a senior official in Tehran, said a new relationship could not be built on "Iran forgetting the previous hostile and aggressive attitude of the United States.""The American administration has to recognize its past mistakes and repair them as a way to put away the differences," news reports quoted Mr. Javanfekr as saying.

Mr. Javanfekr, an aide to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, urged the United States to "fundamentally change its behavior," Reuters reported.

The catalogue of grievances includes American support for a 1953 coup and the downing in 1988 of an Iranian civilian airliner by an American warship in the Persian Gulf. Iran also holds Washington responsible for supporting Baghdad in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and for backing armed Iranian dissidents. Mr. Javanfekr was also quoted as taking issue with the United States military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, calling it "the only source of instability in the region."

He also said America's support for Israel was "not a friendly gesture" and he took issue with Washington's support of United Nations sanctions against Iran, which he said were "wrong and need to be reviewed."

Iran has been the target of three sets of United Nations Security Council sanctions for refusing to halt enrichment. Iran says that it is only enriching uranium to low levels to produce fuel for its nuclear reactors. Highly enriched uranium could be used for making weapons.

President Obama, however, chose to evoke different imagery.

"Over many centuries your art, your music, literature and innovation have made the world a better and more beautiful place," he said.

But, referring to the deep divisions since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, he went on: "For nearly three decades relations between our nations have been strained. But at this holiday we are reminded of the common humanity that binds us together."

The president said: "Within these celebrations lies the promise of a new day, the promise of opportunity for our children, security for our families, progress for our communities, and peace between nations. Those are shared hopes, those are common dreams.""So in this season of new beginnings I would like to speak clearly to Iran's leaders," he said. "We have serious differences that have grown over time. 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."

"This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect," he said. The use of the term "mutual respect" has become a kind of code-word in speeches by Mr. Obama and President Ahmadinejad, signifying a break with the Bush Administration which listed Iran as part of an "axis of evil" that included Iraq and North Korea.

As in the past, though, the president indicated that rapprochement had a price for Iran, which is heading toward critical presidential elections later this year.

"You, too, have a choice," the president 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 civilization. And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create."

The president's reference to terror and arms seemed to refer to Washington's objections to Iran's support for the Islamic militant groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Mr. Obama did not go into specific detail on issues such as Iran's nuclear project, which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes but which many in the West suspect is designed to create nuclear weapons that would threaten Israel and upset the regional power balance.

Rather, the president offered a vision of a new era.

"So on the occasion of your New Year," he said, "I want you, the people and leaders of Iran, to understand the future that we seek. It's a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and 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.""I know that this won't be reached easily. There are those who insist that we be defined by our differences. But let us remember the words that were written by the poet Saadi, so many years ago: "The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence." The reference was apparently to Saadi Shirazi , a 13th-century Persian poet from the town of Shiraz.