- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

BEIRUT (AP) - Lebanon’s top Shiite cleric said Tuesday he believes cooperation is possible between Iran and the United States under the Obama administration, although he discounted any hope of an alliance between the adversaries.

Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah said in an interview with The Associated Press that he believes President Barack Obama is sincere in trying to improve what the cleric called America’s “ugly image” in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Fadlallah is a former spiritual guide to the Iran-backed Hezbollah and is still influential with many Shiite militants. In the interview, Fadlallah said his ties with Iran are good despite “divergent viewpoints” on some issues, which he did not explain. Iranian officials who come to Lebanon often visit the cleric.

Fadlallah, 73, is the top religious authority for Lebanon’s estimated 1.2 million Shiites, the country’s largest sect.

Since he took office in January, Obama has reached out to Iran publicly in speeches. His administration has also reversed the policy of his predecessor, George W. Bush, and said it is willing to negotiate directly with Iran over its nuclear program, which is one of the main areas of strain.

Obama also has reached out to Syria, which had been isolated by the Bush administration because of its support for militant groups.

During a visit to Turkey last week, Obama addressed the wider Muslim world, declaring that the U.S. “is not and never will be at war with Islam.”

Fadlallah said there is “a chance for dialogue” between America and the European Union on the one hand, and Iran on the other, over Tehran’s nuclear program and issues that concern the U.S., such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Iran’s steadfastness and its ability to enter the stage of military and nuclear industry have forced Western countries to talk to it from a position different from before,” he said.

Fadlallah ruled out the possibility of a U.S.-Iran alliance to end regional conflicts. “But it is very possible for the two countries to establish normal relations,” he said.

U.S.-Iranian ties were cut in 1979 after hardline students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

Fadlallah discounted the possibility of a U.S.-backed Israeli airstrike against Tehran’s nuclear facilities but said the new hardline government in Israel could wage war on the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon.

Fadlallah, who was among those who lashed out at Bush’s policies in the Middle East, acknowledged Obama’s push to improve America’s standing.

“We have heard beautiful words (from Obama). But the problem is what are the realistic means that could turn these words into a reality?” Fadlallah said, echoing similar statements by Iranian officials.

“He (Obama) is trying to improve the image,” he said. “But the problem is that America is not a state based on individuals. It’s a state based on institutions.”

He said support for Israel from some members of the U.S. Congress and pro-Israel lobby groups could pose an obstacle to improving ties with the Arab world.

The black-turbaned, white-bearded cleric said the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts presented the new U.S. administration with its first test as to whether Obama would be able to pressure Israel to compromise.

Fadlallah has had a turbulent relationship with the United States. He was spiritual mentor for Hezbollah during the 1980s, when pro-Iranian militants linked to the group were blamed for kidnapping Westerners and bombing the Marine base in Beirut, killing more than 260 Americans.

Fadlallah has denied links to the bombings and has in the last decade taken a conciliatory stand on Islam’s relations with the West, condemning attacks that killed civilians.

In the interview, Fadlallah rejected Egyptian accusations that Hezbollah had recruited agents to carry out attacks in Egypt, saying they were meant to “tarnish the image” of the militant group which fought Israel in southern Lebanon.

On Sunday, Egyptian Attorney General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud added espionage to the charges against 49 alleged Hezbollah agents, in addition to plotting to destabilize the country.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has rejected the accusations but confirmed that it had sent a member to Egypt to help militant Palestinian allies in Gaza.

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