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Obama offers Iran 'new beginning'

President Obama makes a direct appeal to Iran's leaders

US President Barack Obama has offered "a new beginning" of engagement with Tehran in an unprecedented direct video message to the Iranian people.

"My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us," Mr Obama said.

An advisor to Iran's president welcomed Mr Obama's message but said Washington had to fundamentally change policy.

Relations between Iran and the US have been strained over Tehran's controversial nuclear activities.

The US fears Iran's uranium enrichment programme is a cover to build atomic weapons, a charge Iranian officials deny.

Mr Obama, like his predecessor, wants Iran to abandon its uranium enrichment programme, but is trying to build up diplomatic capital before confronting the issue, says the BBC's diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus.

Warning

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana described Mr Obama's appeal as "very constructive" and urged Teheran to pay close attention to it.

Paul Reynolds
Paul Reynolds, World affairs correspondent


President Barack Obama's video message is an imaginative start to his attempt to improve relations - but huge obstacles remain.

In diplomacy such efforts at overcoming major differences sometimes end simply in defining those differences more sharply.

These issues were not directly mentioned by Mr Obama but this is what he is referring to:

• Iran to give up uranium enrichment and accept international offers to provide fuel for nuclear power
• Iran to stop arming Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza
• Iran to help in achieving peace in Afghanistan and Iraq
• Iran to stop threatening Israel.

Iran will want the following:

• Acceptance of its right to enrich uranium
• An end to UN sanctions
• An end to US sanctions
• An end to America's "colonialist attitudes"

Mr Obama's message was released to coincide with the festival of Nowruz, when Iranians mark the arrival of spring.

In it, President Obama said he wanted "to speak directly to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran".

He said his administration was committed "to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community".

"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," the message said.

But Mr Obama warned: "This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect."

"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."

Reacting to the message, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, a senior advisor to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said the US had to recognise its past mistakes if it wanted to engage Iran.

"By fundamentally changing its behaviour America can offer us a friendly hand," he told Reuters news agency.

What is the new administration actually offering, that George Bush didn't?
Akbar, Tehran

"Unlimited sanctions which still continue and have been renewed by the United States are wrong and need to be reviewed," he said.

In separate Nowruz messages to the Iranian people, neither Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei nor President Ahmadinejad mentioned Mr Obama's speech.

Ayatollah Khamenei said world powers had been convinced they could do nothing to halt the progress Iran was making on its nuclear programme.

'Axis of evil'

Mr Obama's message was distributed to news outlets in Iran with subtitles in Farsi, and posted on the White House's official website.

The message is a dramatic departure from the policies of the George W Bush's administration, which described Iran as part of the "axis of evil", the BBC's Jonathan Beale in Washington says.

Earlier this year, President Obama said he was looking for "openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table face-to-face" with Iran.

HAVE YOUR SAY
It's certainly a positive action and wouldn't result in a situation worse than what is today.
Arun Mehta, Mumbai, India

However, Mr Obama acknowledged in his message on Thursday that it would not be easy to overcome "the old divisions".

Mr Obama has talked of engagement with Iran but has not made clear how that might take place.

Shortly after coming to office in January, he said "if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fists, they will find an extended hand from us".

But earlier this month he extended sanctions against Iran for a year, saying it continues to pose a threat to US national security.

In another possible move towards engagement, the state department is said to be considering an overture in the form of a letter to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei before the Iranian elections this summer.



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