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Obama and Israeli leader make video appeals to Iran

Posted by claudiacampli su 20 marzo, 2009

IHT

Friday, March 20, 2009

Invoking art, history and “the common humanity that binds us,” President Barack Obama offered a “new day” in America’s relationship with Iran, using a videotaped message released on the Internet to make an unusual appeal directly to Iranians for a shift away from decades of confrontation.

The Israeli president, Shimon Peres, issued an audio statement on Friday appealing to “the noble Iranian people on behalf of the ancient Jewish people.”

Both messages suggested that there was a place for Iran as an equal in the international community. Obama warned Iran’s leaders that their country’s access to what he called its “rightful place in the community of nations” would not be advanced by threats or by “terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions.”

As they have in the past when confronted with conciliatory words from Washington, Iranian officials welcomed the overture but stressed that it needed to be followed up with concrete actions to address past grievances, like the downing of an Iranian airliner in 1988.

Al Akbar Javanfekr, a high-ranking adviser to Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, praised Obama’s effort to reach out to Iranians but asked for practical steps by the United States to change its orientation towards Iran.

“This cannot only be done by us, we cannot simply forget what the U.S. did to our nation,” he said. “They need to perceive what wrong orientation they had and make serious efforts to make up for it.”

Western experts have long pointed out that to a regime steeped in anti-Americanism, where “Death to America” is still chanted at Friday prayers, the prospect of warming relations with Washington poses a fundamental threat. The leadership in Tehran, they say, is far more comfortable with confrontation, and raises the issue of past grievances to prevent any meaningful progress toward reconciliation.

Obama’s message was released on YouTube and the White House Web site with Persian-language subtitles on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian new year and start of an annual two-week long spring holiday . It comes almost 30 years after the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Iran, when militant students empowered by the Iranian revolution took over the American Embassy in Tehran and held more than 50 people hostage for 444 days.

The message echoed sentiments in Obama’s first televised interview from the White House in January, in which he hinted at a new openness toward Iran.

That message seemed far more explicit in this video broadcast, in which the president urged Iran to discuss “in mutual respect” the gamut of issues that has cast Iran and the United States on opposite sides of a gulf splitting the region. They include Iran’s nuclear ambitions, its attitude toward Israel and what the United States considers Tehran’s support for elements of the insurgency in Iraq.

It wasn’t clear how many Iranians had initially seen the video, which was not broadcast on state television on Friday, the Associated Press reported. It was shown by satellite providers from outside the country, however, including BBC’s Farsi language service, and was widely available on a range of news Web sites.

Some video sharing sites, such as YouTube are blocked in Iran, and many Iranian families do not watch television during the first days of two-week long Nowruz holiday, which is normally filled with family gatherings or vacations away from home.

In his New Year’s message, Peres sought to reach out directly to the Iranian people, speaking at times in Persian and asserting that the interests of average Iranians are not being met by the current government.

“Our ties with the Iranian people have known days of prosperity even in these modern times, when we shared with you our experience in agriculture, scientific and medical developments, and we worked to develop the best of ties with you,” he recalled. “Unfortunately, these days, the relations between our countries are at a low that stems from the impulses leading the current leaders of your country to act against the State of Israel and its people in any way possible.”

He continued: “Therefore, I look at Iran on the one hand with admiration for its history, but on the other hand with grief for what has become of it and in hopes that it will recover.”

A senior Israeli official said the government would have no official comment on Obama’s statement to the Iranians. In principle, he said, Israel had no objection to dialogue with Tehran but was worried that Iran’s ongoing efforts to produce nuclear weapons would not be much affected by the discussions.

“We understand that you need carrots and sticks in international diplomacy,” the official said. “But our concern is that the game plan of the Iranians is to talk and talk and talk, while in parallel to enrich and enrich and enrich uranium. Then it will present the international community with a fait accompli.” Obama’s message drew an enthusiastic response from the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, who said he hoped it would lead to a “new chapter in relations with Iran.”

But in his response, Javanfekr, the Iranian official, alluded to the need for America to make right on catalogue of grievances, including American support for the 1953 coup and the 1988 downing of an Iranian civilian airliner by an American warship in the Gulf. Iran also resents Washington’s support for Baghdad in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and for the People’s Mujahedeen, a group of dissident Iranian exiles long-based in Iraq that has given the West information about Iran’s nuclear program.

Javanfekr was also quoted as taking issue with the United States military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, calling it “the only source of instability in the region.” He said America’s support for Israel was “not a friendly gesture” and he objected to Washington’s backing of United Nations sanctions against Iran, which he said were “wrong and need to be reviewed.”

Iran has been the target of three sets of United Nations Security Council sanctions for refusing to halt enrichment. Iran says that it is only enriching uranium to low levels to produce fuel for its nuclear reactors. Highly enriched uranium could be used for making weapons.

President Obama, however, chose to evoke different imagery.

“Over many centuries your art, your music, literature and innovation have made the world a better and more beautiful place.” He said.

But, referring to the deep divisions since the 1979 Islamic revolution, he went on: “For nearly three decades relations between our nations have been strained. But at this holiday we are reminded of the common humanity that binds us together.”

“So in this season of new beginnings I would like to speak clearly to Iran’s leaders,” he said. “We have serious differences that have grown over time. 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,” he said. The use of the term “mutual respect” has become a kind of code-word in speeches by Obama and President Ahmadinejad, signifying a break with the Bush administration which listed Iran as part of an “axis of evil” that included Iraq and North Korea.

As in the past, though, the president indicated that in return for rapprochement it had to end its backing of Islamic militants groups.

“You, too, have a choice,” the president said. “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, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization.”

Iran supports the militant groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Obama did not go into specific detail on issues involving Iran’s nuclear project. Tehran says it wants to make nuclear fuel to power energy plants, but many in the West suspect the program is designed to create nuclear weapons that could threaten Israel and upset the regional power balance.

Rather, the president offered a vision of a new era.

“So on the occasion of your New Year,” he said, “I want you, the people and leaders of Iran, to understand the future that we seek. It’s a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce. It’s a future where the old divisions are overcome, where you and all of your neighbors and the wider world can live in greater security and greater peace.”

“I know that this won’t be reached easily. There are those who insist that we be defined by our differences. But let us remember the words that were written by the poet Saadi, so many years ago: “The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence.” The reference was apparently to Saadi Shirazi, a 13th-century Persian poet from the town of Shiraz.

In Baghdad, Sami al-Askari, a member of the foreign relations committee in the Iraqi Parliament who is regarded as close to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, said in a telephone interview that Iraq saw Obama’s message as a “positive pointer” that could benefit regional security.

But he cautioned against expecting any dramatic departures in the relationship between Tehran and Washington, saying the differences after more than a quarter of a century of hostility went deep.

“It needs efforts from both sides, the Americans as well as the Iranians, to reach cooperation or at least a kind of understanding,” he said. The process could also be slowed by the Iranian presidential elections next June, he said, because of the sensitivities surrounding any rapprochement with America.

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