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Obama reaches out to Iran with multiple messages

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010; 11:22 PM

UNITED NATIONS - Nearly two years after President Obama took office, the broad outlines of his Iran policy are clear: accumulate leverage, keep your options open, and prepare for the worst.

The strategy was illustrated Friday when the president took to the airwaves of Iran, granting a lengthy interview to the BBC Persian service in which he balanced sometimes dissonant themes: praise for the Iranian people; a willingness to seek a diplomatic solution to the impasse over the government's nuclear ambitions; condemnation of the Iranian president; and rhetorical support for the opposition movement that seeks to topple the leadership with whom Obama needs to make a deal.

The president reiterated that U.S.-led sanctions were not aimed at the Iranian people but were the result of bad decisions made by the Iranian government. At the same time, he held out the promise of better relations if the government changed tack, even as he rebuked Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for "offensive" and "hateful" remarks the Iranian president made Thursday suggesting that the United States was behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Obama praised the opposition forces that challenged the results of Iran's 2009 presidential election but noted the United States would have supported the results if the election had been conducted in a fair manner. "We have no interest in meddling in the rights of people that choose their own government, but we will speak out forcefully when we see governments abusing and oppressing their own people," he said.

These themes aren't directly contradictory, but they are in tension with each other. At the same time, the president and his aides appear to believe they have built up enough pressure against the Iranian government to bring some results. In June, the U.N. Security Council approved a new round of sanctions on Iran for failing to comply with demands that it halt uranium enrichment. Many major powers have followed up with unilateral sanctions.

The Obama administration also has launched peace talks in the Middle East, ended combat operations in Iraq and implemented a new strategy in Afghanistan. Each of these were areas where Iran has often acted as a spoiler, especially when international pressure on its nuclear program was increasing.

Already, Iran has indicated that it wants to return to the negotiating table, perhaps as soon as next month. U.S. and European officials are doubtful the effort will yield much, especially since Tehran seems intent on keeping the focus on a deal involving a medical research reactor, not a broader agreement concerning its enrichment program.

Indeed, it is unclear whether the Iranian leadership - which for three decades has made anti-Americanism the core of its ideology - would ever have any interest in a rapprochement.

Far from being abashed by his comments about the Sept. 11 attacks, Ahmadinejad on Friday reiterated his call for the establishment of a U.N. fact-finding mission to explore whether elements within the U.S. government played a role in orchestrating the attacks to protect the interests of Israel in the Middle East.

"I do not wish to make any judgment at all myself," Ahmadinejad told reporters. But he claimed that many New Yorkers believe that the attacks were part of a U.S. conspiracy to justify its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Don't you feel the time's come to have a fact-finding committee, because hundreds of thousands of people have died as a result of that event?" he said.

A military strike, either by the United States or Israel, is still a real possibility. In the interview, Obama ducked a question about the military option. "I think what people should remember is that I don't take war lightly," he said. "I was opposed to the war in Iraq. I am somebody who's interested in resolving issues diplomatically."

He added that the Islamic republic has "a right to peaceful nuclear programs and peaceful nuclear power."

kesslerg@washpost.com Colum Lynch contributed to this report.

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