Iran plays it cool as Obama offers a 'new beginning'

President calls for dialogue and plays down military option in video message
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The Independent US

President Barack Obama has reached out to Iran in an unprecedented video appeal for a "new beginning" that would turn the page on three decades of bad blood and mistrust between the two states.

The initial reaction from Iranian officials to the latest overture was cool, with an aide to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saying that Tehran wanted to see "practical steps" from the Obama administration.

Mr Obama's three-and-a-half-minute speech, timed to coincide with the Nowruz new year celebrations in Iran, was long on flattery and, despite being short on detail, marks a significant change of tone from his predecessor, President Bush.

Acknowledging the "serious differences" between the two countries, which have not had diplomatic relations since the 1979 hostage taking at the US embassy in Tehran, Mr Obama said: "My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community."

Confirming a break with Bush administration policy, the Democratic President hinted that the military option was receding. "This process will not be advanced by threats," he said. "We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect."

His address to "the people and leaders of Iran", accompanied by subtitles, also contained a hint that America was no longer seeking the overthrow of the Islamic government. "The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations," said the President. But he warned that this could not take place "through terror or arms".

Mr Obama's intervention appears part of a renewed and concerted international effort to persuade Iran to rein in its nuclear ambitions, although he did not refer directly to the programme which Iran insists is for civil purposes only. Western governments fear that time is running out to prevent the Iranians from developing a nuclear weapon that could change the balance of power in the Middle East.

Earlier this week, Gordon Brown reiterated that the international community stood ready to help Iran develop nuclear power – but on terms which Tehran has flatly refused because the offer would prevent the enrichment of uranium on Iranian soil. The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, who has led talks with Iran, welcomed the "constructive" message from Washington.

Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say over nuclear policy, also spoke yesterday in a recorded message to mark the new year, in which he warned the West that Iran's nuclear programme was unstoppable. Mr Obama has clearly decided to move before the Iranian elections in June, after offering to extend a hand of peace to Iran on taking office in January – "if it unclenched its fist". But it remains unclear how many Iranians would have watched the video at a time when people are off work for two weeks, spending time with their families. "The reverberations should extend quite far once people start to respond and discuss," said Professor Ali Ansari, an Iran specialist at St Andrews University, adding that, "the message is very good and well timed".

The Iranian people also received a new year message in Farsi yesterday from the Israel's President, Shimon Peres, who expressed the hope that they would "topple" Iran's leadership.

'To all who are celebrating Nowruz' : Obama's message

Today I want to extend my very best wishes to all who are celebrating Nowruz around the world. This holiday is both an ancient ritual and a moment of renewal, and I hope that you enjoy this special time of year with friends and family.

In particular, I would like to speak directly to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nowruz is just one part of your great and celebrated culture. Over many centuries your art, your music, literature and innovation have made the world a better and more beautiful place. Here in the United States our own communities have been enhanced by the contributions of Iranian Americans. We know that you are a great civilisation, and your accomplishments have earned the respect of the United States and the world.

For nearly three decades, relations between our nations have been strained. But at this holiday we are reminded of the common humanity that binds us together. Indeed, you will be celebrating your New Year in much the same way that we Americans mark our holidays – by gathering with friends and family, exchanging gifts and stories, and looking to the future with a renewed sense of hope.

Within these celebrations lies the promise of a new day, the promise of opportunity for our children, security for our families, progress for our communities, and peace between nations. Those are shared hopes, those are common dreams.

So in this season of new beginnings I would like to speak clearly to Iran's leaders. We have serious differences that have grown over time. My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.

You, too, have a choice. The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right – but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilisation. And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create.

So on the occasion of your New Year, I want you, the people and leaders of Iran, to understand the future that we seek. It's a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce. It's a future where the old divisions are overcome, where you and all of your neighbours and the wider world can live in greater security and peace.

I know this won't be reached easily. There are those who insist we be defined by our differences. But let us remember the words that were written by the poet Saadi, so many years ago: "The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence."

With the coming of a new season, we're reminded of this precious humanity that we all share. And we can once again call upon this spirit as we seek the promise of a new beginning. Thank you, and Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak.

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