Obama offers new start; Iran wants action not talk

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 yesterday 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 towards 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 realise 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 towards their mutual ends,” White House spokesman  Robert Gibbs told reporters.

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. “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 Univer-sity, 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.

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