Obama looking for openings with Iran

However, US president blasts "bellicose language" directed at Israel by the Islamic republic.

Obama speaks 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Obama speaks 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
US President Barack Obama said Monday his administration is looking for opportunities to open direct talks with Iran, but that years of mistrust will be hard to overcome. "My national security team is currently reviewing our existing Iran policy, looking at areas where we can have constructive dialogue, where we can directly engage with them," Obama said. "My expectation is that in the coming months we will be looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table face to face." In his first prime-time news conference as president, Obama repeated campaign pledges to rethink three decades of enmity with Iran, but offered no examples of possible partnership. "Now 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." Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tuesday he would welcome talks with the United States, but they must be based on mutual respect. Speaking at celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, Ahmadinejad said although the Obama administration said it was willing to "bring about a number of changes," he hoped the changes are "fundamental and not just tactical." Ahmadinejad said Iran was ready to hold talks with the US but in a "fair atmosphere and with mutual respect." Meanwhile, on Afghanistan, Obama said he was reviewing a war strategy that has failed to root out terrorists and insurgents and hinted at a newly narrowed focus that prizes the fight against terrorism over the strengthening of a fragile US-backed democratic government. "I'm not going to allow al-Qaida or (Osama) bin Laden to operate with impunity, planning attacks on the US homeland," Obama said. The most promising areas for cooperation are probably Afghanistan and Iraq, both neighbors of Iran where the United States is fighting wars. Especially in Afghanistan, Iran has a strong interest in containing insurgent violence and the drug trade that threaten to spill over Iran's borders. Obama repeated the usual list of US complaints against Iran, including financial support for terror groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas, and "bellicose language" directed at Israel. He also said Iran's nuclear program threatens to rock the Middle East and could set off a new arms race. Obama also said his administration is conducting a "thoroughgoing review" of the Afghanistan war and said he does not know how long the reassessment will take. "We are going to need more effective coordination of our military efforts, with diplomatic efforts, with development efforts, with more effective coordination with our allies in order for us to be successful," Obama said. He credited "the extraordinary work done by our troops" and diplomatic successes for relative peace and stability in Iraq. "You do not see that yet in Afghanistan. They've got elections coming up, but effectively the national government seems very detached from what's going on in the surrounding community," Obama said. Obama suggested that not enough has been done to go after insurgents where they hide out and rearm in the forbidding mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. "What we haven't seen is the kind of concerted effort to root out those safe havens that would ultimately make our mission successful," Obama said. Israel was not taken by surprise by Obama's announcement, with one official saying that Israeli conversations over the last few weeks with the new administration - from Obama himself to Secretary of State Hillary 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."