President Obama made his first significant overture to Iran on Friday, wishing the longtime U.S. adversary a happy Persian new year and signaling his desire for a fundamentally better relationship if Iran renounces its nuclear program and support for terrorism.
The message, which was videotaped for release at the start of the spring equinox - which Iranians and several other nationalities celebrate as New Year’s Day - was unusual in several respects.
Unlike former President George W. Bush, who sought to distinguish between Iranians and their authoritarian regime, Mr. Obama addressed his remarks to both “the people and the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
His reference to the “Islamic Republic” signaled recognition of the legitimacy of the Iranian form of government - something that the Bush administration was reluctant to do for fear of discouraging Iranian dissidents.
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Mr. Obama also hinted that the United States might be willing to ease comprehensive economic sanctions in place against Iran since 1995. He said the U.S. seeks a “future with renewed exchanges among our people and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce.”
But for Iran to achieve “its rightful place in the community of nations,” Mr. Obama said, it would have to assume “real responsibilities. … 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.”
Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian-American Council, praised the president´s remarks as “one of the best things he could have done” to break the ice with Tehran.
“It was a departure from the regime change mind-set, and he was signaling strategic intent to end the 30-year enmity and not simply seek another set of tactical discussions over Afghanistan or Iraq,” Mr. Parsi said.
Some of the language in the speech - particularly a reference to “new beginnings” - echoed a previous overture by the Clinton administration nine years ago.
Since then, the U.S. and Iran have both clashed and cooperated.
It remains to be seen what impact Mr. Obama´s remarks will have. An aide to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Friday there were positive aspects to the message but that Iran needed to see real changes in U.S. policy - an echo of U.S. demands that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment program and stop backing militant Muslim groups.
“Obama has talked of change but has taken no practical measures to address America´s past mistakes in Iran,” Ali Akbar Javankekr told the English-language Iranian government satellite channel, Press TV. “If Mr. Obama takes concrete actions and makes fundamental changes in U.S. foreign policy … the Iranian government and people will not turn their back on him.”
Mr. Parsi said the key response would come from Iran´s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and might take some time, in part because Iran basically shuts down for 10 days to celebrate the new year.
“Let´s not hope for a quick response,” Mr. Parsi said. “I want them to sit and think about this for a while.”
Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr. Ahmadinejad issued separate messages to the Iranian people on their New Year’s Day. Neither mentioned Mr. Obama’s message. The ayatollah said the world powers cannot block Iran’s nuclear progress, and Mr. Ahmadinejad said those powers had reached a “dead end” in their quest, Reuters news agency reported.
Israel’s President Shimon Peres issued a similar message to the people of Iran on Friday, the Associated Press reported. In a rare audio message broadcast on the Voice of Israel’s Farsi-language radio station, Mr. Peres praised Iranians for their ancient culture but also said they would be better off without their hard-line leadership.
The Obama administration is nearing the end of a review of U.S. policy toward Iran. A Western diplomat briefed on the review said the United States would offer to lift economic sanctions on Iran if it caps its nuclear program.
How such an offer would be presented and to whom it would be addressed are not yet clear. The Western diplomat, who asked not to be named because the U.S. review is not yet complete, said the United States hoped to pursue several channels and not make diplomacy dependent on an individual in Iran´s complex political system.
An opportunity for contact will come later this month at two multilateral meetings about Afghanistan that Iran and the United States are both expected to attend. So far, however, no formal bilateral talks have been scheduled.