Iran General NewsIran brushes aside new Obama video message

Iran brushes aside new Obama video message


ImageAP: The Iranian government brushed aside a Persian New Year's message Friday from President Barack Obama offering to resolve years of hostility, saying it wants concrete change from Washington before it's ready to enter a dialogue.

The Associated Press


ImageTEHRAN, Iran (AP) — The Iranian government brushed aside a Persian New Year's message Friday from President Barack Obama offering to resolve years of hostility, saying it wants concrete change from Washington before it's ready to enter a dialogue.

Obama released the video to coincide with the major Iranian festival of Nowruz, a 12-day holiday that marks the arrival of spring and the beginning of the new year on the Persian calendar. In the video, which has Farsi subtitles, Obama said the U.S. is prepared to end the strained relations if Tehran tones down its combative rhetoric.

Israeli President Shimon Peres issued a rare Nowruz greeting of his own to Iranians, praising what he called "the noble Iranian people" in a message on Israel's Farsi-language radio station, which broadcasts in Iran.

But Peres took a tougher tone in an interview to be aired to Iranians on the station on Monday, strongly criticizing Iran's hard-line leaders as "religious fanatics" and predicting that Iranians will overthrow them.

"I think that the Iranian people will topple these leaders," Peres said in the interview, according to a transcript released Friday. "These leaders who don't serve the people, in the end the people will realize that."

Obama has repeatedly signaled a willingness to engage with Iran about its nuclear program and hostility toward Israel. At his inauguration, the president told rival states that his administration "will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

But Iranian leaders have been not been as eager. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has criticized Obama, saying he would continue the policies of former President George W. Bush.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also has said Iran would welcome talks with the U.S. — but only if there was mutual respect. Iranian officials say that means Washington must stop accusing Iran of seeking to build nuclear weapons and supporting terrorism, charges Tehran denies.

On Friday, an Ahmadinejad adviser played down Obama's video, saying "minor changes will not end the differences" between Tehran and Washington.

"Obama has talked of change but has taken no practical measures to address America's past mistakes in Iran. If Mr. Obama takes concrete actions and makes fundamental changes in U.S. foreign policy toward other nations including Iran, the Iranian government and people will not turn their back on him," press adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr told the state-run English-language Press TV satellite station.

Obama's overture comes ahead of national elections in June. Ahmadinejad faces a tough campaign against reformists, who favor better ties with the West and the United States.

The reformists, led by former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, may try to use promises to thaw the nearly 30-year diplomatic freeze to gain votes. In contrast, conservatives may get caught between maintaining their tough position or offering some opening for dialogue with Washington.

At the least, Obama's overtures put pressure on hard-liners to justify their anti-American stance to Iranians, said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Previously, the hard-liners have been able to blame the impasse on Bush, who was widely unpopular in Iran.

"Rather than tip the scales in favor of (hard-line) radicals, as the Bush administration did, I think Obama's efforts at diplomacy will undermine them and puncture their narrative of a hostile U.S. government bent on oppressing Iran," Sadjadpour said.

Obama's acknowledgment of Iran's rich history and culture will undoubtedly resonate well here and could encourage calls for leaders to begin deeper contacts.

But all depends on Khamenei, who holds the last word on any major policy decisions. Without backing from the ruling clerics, no diplomatic initiatives toward Washington are possible and could work in Ahmadinejad's favor in the campaign.

Diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Iran were cut after the U.S. Embassy hostage-taking after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which toppled the pro-U.S. shah and brought to power a government of Islamic clerics.

The United States cooperated with Iran in late 2001 and 2002 in the Afghanistan conflict, but the promising contacts fizzled — and were extinguished completely when Bush branded Tehran part of the "Axis of Evil."

Obama's Nowruz video came ahead of his expected announcement of a new strategy in the Afghanistan war.

The United Nations has called a March 31 conference on Afghanistan for member nations to discuss the way forward in the war-torn country. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Friday that Washington hopes Iran will attend.

The conference aims to involve "Afghanistan's neighbors in that troubled region of the world, and obviously Iran is one of those neighbors," Gibbs said. "We believe, if it wants to, (Iran) can work constructively with the international community to help the country of Afghanistan."

Analyst Anthony Cordesman said Iran may issue signals that it also wants to improve relations, especially regarding Afghanistan, before the election.

"They don't have to be positive signals in sense of action," said Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Iran can quietly stop doing things or quietly diminish things like the flow of weapons to suspect groups."

It wasn't clear how many Iranians were able to see Obama's video, which was not shown on state television Friday. It was likely shown on Farsi-language TV stations beamed from outside the country, but many Iranians don't watch TV in the first days of the long Nowruz holiday that is normally filled with family gatherings or vacations away from home.

Iranians could see the video on the White House Web site, but other popular video-sharing sites like YouTube are blocked in Iran. It also was unclear how many Iranians heard Peres' message, though the radio station claims it reaches millions of Iranians.

Some Iranians in Tehran were more upbeat than the government about Obama's video, calling it a step in the right direction.

"I hope this will help melt the ice between the two governments. On the people's level, there is no animosity. We hope our governments will put aside animosity and move towards reconciliation," said fruit vendor Hasan Mahmoudi.

But others were more cautions. Student Ali Mohammadi said he didn't think Obama's message would end decades of estrangement.

"Relations with the U.S. is in the hands of Khamenei and he doesn't want resumption of ties with Washington. On the other hand, the Obama administration won't go beyond some nice gestures and cosmetic appeals. So there is little optimism for a change in Iran-U.S. ties," he said.

Associated Press writers Josef Federman in Jerusalem, Lolita Baldor in Washington and Anna Johnson in Cairo contributed to this report.

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