Khamenei dismisses Obama overtures

Iran's top leader: How can he congratulate us when the US still accuses us of supporting terrorism?

obama iran video address 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
obama iran video address 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
In what the White House described as a move "to seek a different relationship" with Iran, US President Barack Obama delivered a New Year's message to Iranians on Friday stressing his interest in diplomatic engagement and improved ties with Teheran. In a video released for Nowruz, the Persian New Year, Obama declared that he wanted to "speak directly to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran." He noted that while there have been "serious differences" between the two countries, including on issues of security, he was seeking an engagement that was "honest and grounded in mutual respect." Analysts pointed to his use of the term "Islamic Republic" and his addressing the leaders as well as average citizens to underscore the different tone Obama was seeking to establish, implying that the United States was not seeking regime change, a major concern of Teheran's. The Obama administration is still officially reviewing its Iran policy, but Friday's video is only the latest sign of outreach to Iran. Recently, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated that Iran should be invited to an international conference on Afghanistan to be held later this month. And observers have suggested that the administration wants to emphasize positive overtures ahead of the June presidential elections in Iran, holding off for now on more aggressive moves like ratcheting up sanctions to create a positive environment for diplomacy to have the best chance of success. "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," Obama said in the video. "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." But Iran took a dim view of Obama's message, saying it wants concrete change from Washington before it's ready to enter a dialogue. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Saturday dismissed Obama's overtures, saying Teheran does not see any change in American policy toward its government. Speaking to tens of thousands of people in Mashhad, Khamenei asked how Obama could congratulate Iranians on the New Year while the US continues to accuse the country of supporting terrorism and seeking nuclear weapons. An Ahmadinejad adviser played down Obama's video, saying "minor changes will not end the differences" between Teheran 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 US 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. Iranian Energy Minister Pervez Fatah said Teheran welcomes Obama's greetings but would nevertheless push on with its nuclear program. Fatah said that the Bushehr nuclear facility would begin operations this year and reiterated that it was intended solely for peaceful purposes. He also said Iran would reveal further progress in its nuclear program within 20 days, but did not elaborate. Some ordinary Iranians were more upbeat 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 Hassan 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 US are 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-US ties," he said. 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 former president George W. 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 US government bent on oppressing Iran," Sadjadpour said.