Obama reaches out to Iran with message to Muslims

Al-Arabiya is chosen for new President's first formal televised interview

Leonard Doyle
Wednesday 28 January 2009 01:00

Barack Obama has extended a hand of peace to Iran, provided that it "unclench its fist" and has said the time is ripe for Israel and the Palestinians to resume peace negotiations.

For his first formal televised interview as President, Mr Obama choseal-Arabiya, the pan-Arab voice of political reform, to send a powerful and conciliatory signal to the Muslim world. There was a striking shift in tone and substance from his predecessor George Bush, who branded Iran part of the "Axis of Evil" and rejected face-to-face talks with America's enemies.

Mr Obama offered dialogue with Tehran and promised a new American readiness to listen to those who oppose it in the Middle East.

It is "important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are but where there are potential avenues for progress," he said, echoing his inaugural address last week when he declared, "If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us."

Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, underscored the gesture, saying yesterday it was now up to Iran to "engage meaningfully," by making the first move. Washington accuses Tehran of seeking nuclear weapons, but Iran says its atomic programme is designed with energy production in mind.

The two countries have not had direct diplomatic relations for three decades and yesterday, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safari told reporters in Athens that it was too early to say whether relations would improve with Mr Obama as president. "We will wait and see [if there is] change or just slogans," he said.

The interview with Dubai-based al-Arabiya was recorded on Monday. Mr Obama appeared to go out of his way to rebrand America's image in the Muslim world, declaring: "My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy."

Then, with words never previously heard from a US president, he said: "I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries... the largest one, Indonesia. And so what I want to communicate is the fact that, in all my travels throughout the Muslim world, what I've come to understand is that regardless of your faith – and America is a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers – regardless of your faith, people all have certain common hopes and common dreams."

Mr Obama's selection of al-Arabiya over its better-known rival al-Jazeera or the US-funded network al-Hurra emphasised his desire to reach out to the Muslim world without seeming to pander to America's fiercest critics. al-Arabiya – founded in 2003 in deliberate counterpoint to al-Jazeera, which its Saudi Arabian founders saw as too sympathetic to the Jihadist cause – has an audience of 23 million.

Hady Amr, director of the Brookings Doha Centre, an arm of the US think-tank in the Qatari capital, described the decision to make the first presidential interview with an Arabic news network as "stunning." He said: "President Obama has made it absolutely clear... that a central priority will be repairing America's relations with the Muslim world. If that's his objective, I'd say he's been hitting home run after home run."

The abrupt departure from his predecessor's often hectoring tone came as Mr Obama's Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell was about to set out on an eight-day trip to the region.

"It is impossible for us to think only in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think in terms of what's happening with Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan," Mr Obama said, echoing the view that the failure to resolve the issue of Palestine sows the seeds of conflict across the region.

He drew a distinction between "extremist organisations" and "people who may disagree with my administration and certain actions, or may have a particular viewpoint in terms of how their countries should develop.

"We can have legitimate disagreements but still be respectful. I cannot respect terrorist organisations that would kill innocent civilians and we will hunt them down," he said.

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