(photo credit: AP)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday appeared to soften his rhetoric toward the US somewhat, saying the world was "entering an era of dialogue" and that his country would welcome discussions with Washington if they were held "in a fair atmosphere with mutual respect."
Ahmadinejad's comments followed those of US President Barack Obama at his first prime-time press conference held Monday night at the White House, in which he said that he was looking for diplomatic openings with Iran that would allow for direct diplomacy, but that Teheran would also need to show it was willing to reach out.
"The new US government has announced that it wants to bring changes and follow the path of dialogue," Ahmadinejad said. "It is very clear that changes have to be fundamental and not tactical. It is clear that the Iranian nation welcomes true changes."
Ahmadinejad defended current Iranian policy and suggested that when it comes to terrorism and nuclear weaponization, Iran has been the victim rather than the aggressor as America claims.
Ahmadinejad was speaking to hundreds of thousands of Iranians during a celebration marking the 30th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution which led to a break in US-Iranian relations.
He said the world was at a "crossroads" because it had been proven that military power has not been successful - a reference to the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - and now "the world is entering an era of dialogue and intellect."
Ahmadinejad, who faces reelection this June, outlined opportunities for dialogue between the two countries:
"If you really want to fight terrorism, come and cooperate with the Iranian nation, which is the biggest victim of terrorism, so that terrorism is eliminated," he said. "If you want to confront nuclear weapons ... you need to stand beside Iran so it can introduce a correct path to you."
Even as Obama indicated late Monday that he was looking for engagement with Iran, he criticized the Islamic Republic on precisely those points, accusing Teheran of pursuing nuclear weapons, promulgating terrorism and using "bellicose language" towards Israel.
"All those things create the possibility of destabilizing the region and are not only contrary to our interests, but I think are contrary to the interests of international peace," Obama said.
He added that America would press Iran on these issues, and that these problems, as well as the decades of frozen relations between the two countries, would make for slow going.
"There's been a lot of mistrust built up over the years, so it's not going to happen overnight," he said, adding that Iran had to show it was interested in changing its approach.
"It's time for Iran to send some signals that it wants to act differently, as well, and recognize that, even as it has some rights as a member of the international community, with those rights come responsibilities."
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also said Iranian behavior, and its potential changes, would be a key factor in determining whether the US deploys a missile defense system in Eastern European countries, including the Czech Republic, whose foreign minister she hosted Tuesday.
"This is one of those issues that really will rest with the decisions made by the Iranian government," she said, referring to whether the deployment, which has been harshly criticized by the Russians for occurring in what it sees as its sphere of influence, will take place.
She referred to the timing and deployment as "largely technical matters," but that, "if we are able to see a change in behavior on the part of the Iranians with respect to what we believe to be their pursuit of nuclear weapons, then we will reconsider where we stand. But we are a long, long way from seeing such evidence of any behavior change."
Still, Obama said Monday that his national security team was reviewing America's Iran policy with an eye toward "looking at areas where we can have constructive dialogue, where we can directly engage with them."
He explained: "We will be looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table, face-to-face diplomatic overtures, that will allow us to move our policy in a new direction."
Israel was not taken by surprise by Obama's announcement that he was looking for openings for direct diplomacy, with one official saying that Israeli conversations over the last few weeks with the new administration - from Obama himself to Clinton and Middle East envoy George Mitchell - have dealt with the Iranian situation.
"We have expressed our concern that the Iranian tactic is to talk, talk, talk, while continuing to spin the centrifuges at the same time," one official said. "The Americans are equally aware of this Iranian strategy."
The official sidestepped the question of whether Jerusalem told Washington point-blank that engagement with Iran was a mistake.
"President Obama has in every public and private utterance reiterated his total and complete opposition to Iran going nuclear," the official said.
"The administration is in the process of formulating its policy of how to pursue that goal, but on the goal itself there is no debate."
AP contributed to this report.
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