Obama Message to Iran

President Obama reached out to the Iranian people in a new video, saying the U.S. is prepared to engage in diplomacy to resolve tensions. The video was timed to coincide with Nowruz, the Iranian new year. Video courtesy whitehouse.gov
By Thomas Erdbrink and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 21, 2009

TEHRAN, March 20 -- President Obama released a holiday video greeting to Iran on Friday, offering a "new beginning" in a tone that differed sharply from the anti-Iran rhetoric of his predecessor but that drew only mixed responses from Iranian officials and analysts.

Released on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian new year, Obama's message said the United States seeks engagement with Iran "that is honest and grounded in mutual respect," but cautioned that the country cannot "take its rightful place in the community of nations . . . through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization."

Obama, in a three-minute speech made available on the Internet and sent to international broadcasters, twice referred to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the country's official name, signaling an apparent break from President George W. Bush's unstated promotion of a change of leadership. Bush routinely called the Iranian government a "regime" that should not be trusted by its people and said the country was part of an "axis of evil."

Obama's overture was part of an administration effort to engage Iran more directly, in large part to resolve concerns over Iran's nuclear program, which the government in Tehran says is peaceful but which has provoked international suspicion that Iran seeks to develop nuclear weapons.

It can take days for Iran's leadership to articulate a unified stance on sensitive issues, which Obama's message appeared to be. State television made no mention of the greeting and stayed with its holiday programming. Much of Tehran was deserted as people took part in family celebrations.

Still, some Iranian officials welcomed the comments but observed that words were not enough and that Obama should speak more directly to Iran's rulers. "These are real problems that cannot be solved by only talking. We need to see real steps from the U.S.," said Ali Akbar Javanfekr, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's press adviser.

"Statesmen address each other, instead of talking to the people," added Hussein Alaei, an influential retired admiral in the Revolutionary Guard Corps, offering an indication of how the comments will be interpreted by hard-line elements within Iran's government who maintain control over foreign policy.

And Sadegh Kharrazi, Iran's former ambassador to France, said: "Obama had no practical suggestion that we can work with. This is a lost opportunity."

Alaei said he did not detect in Obama's comments a willingness to engage in the rapprochement Iran is seeking: a grand bargain that would address the full range of issues dividing the two governments. U.S. officials have said they are inclined to work with Iran on individual issues. "All outstanding issues between Iran and the United States should be seen as a package first. We should start working on the main problems first and discuss the details later," he said.

"The U.S. has a problem with our uranium enrichment program, Iran's support for Hamas and Hezbollah and our influence in Iraq," Alaei said. "If they prove that they are serious in talking to us, we can act in these fields."

Iran wants the United States to accept its form of religious government, end all covert operations against Iran, accept its nuclear energy program, lift sanctions and acknowledge its status as a regional power. The Obama administration wants to address Iran's links to what the United States calls terrorist groups, resolve the nuclear issue and win Iranian cooperation on regional issues such as Afghanistan.

"In politics everything is possible," said Kharrazi, who is widely considered to be an architect of the package approach, which Iranian officials proposed in 2003. "The problems between the two countries will eventually be solved through a grand bargain. But this attitude by the Obama administration is turning our optimism into pessimism." He and Alaei criticized Obama's decision to renew trade sanctions against Iran.

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