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President Obama Reaches Out to Iran

When President Obama released a holiday greeting to Iran last Friday, offering a “new beginning” in U.S.-Iranian relations, the popular reaction was favorable. But Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reacted critically, saying he sees no real change in U.S. policy and behavior.

An Iranian Perspective

Iranian journalist Ali Reza Nourizadeh, director of the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London, says people in Iran were generally pleased by President Obama’s overture. Nourizadeh says the American President not only praised Iranian culture but also addressed the Iranian leadership directly, calling the government by its official name – the Islamic Republic of Iran. But he notes Tehran’s official reaction to the President’s remarks for the Persian New Year was far from warm.

Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA’s International Press Club, Ali Reza Nourizadeh says the government was not happy. According to Nourizadeh, Ayatollah Khamenei and the Iranian leadership do not want to have “normal relations” with the United States. Nourizadeh argues that Tehran wants Washington to make all the concessions without giving anything back. He says it is unrealistic for Iran to demand that Washington stop supporting Israel while it simultaneously calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. Furthermore, he says Ayatollah Khamenei criticizes U.S. seizure of Iranian assets without telling his people what led up to that decision.

Ali Reza Nourizadeh says he believes it may take years before Iran and the United States establish normal relations with each other. He adds that it is more likely that there will be a change of approach than an actual change of policy. He observes that “at the end of the day, it will be the Ayatollah Khamenei who decides.” Nonetheless, Nourizadeh suggests that the Obama administration is hoping that the Iranian people will choose a “pragmatic, liberal-minded” candidate during presidential elections in June.

An Arab Perspective

Journalist Nadia Bilbasssy, senior news correspondent with the Middle East Broadcasting Center, says people in the Arab world see President Obama’s reaching out to Iran as a positive step. She says people wanted to see a change from the previous administration, which typically “resorted to the language of military threats.” Bilbassy notes that the new American President stresses the idea of “mutual respect.”

From an Arab perspective, however, the Iranian question is complicated by a host of issues, Nadia Bilbassy says. Among them are Iran’s nuclear program, its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and for Hamas in Palestine, and its regional rivalry with Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, these issues do not dampen Arab enthusiasm for President Obama’s move, according to Bilbassy. Arabs are pleased with Mr. Obama’s use of “soft power” and his emphasis on “diplomacy and dialogue.” She says they are also pleased that President Obama did not “give in to Israeli pressure” to make Iran the top priority for his administration.

An Israeli Perspective

Israeli journalist Nathan Guttman of the Jewish Daily Forward says the Israeli government has not responded publicly to President Obama’s message to Iran. But he notes most Israelis believe a hard line is needed when dealing with Iran.

Shortly before Mr. Obama made his statement to the Iranian people last week, Guttman points out that the Israeli chief of staff was in Washington, meeting with senior officials in the U.S. administration. And he told them that Israel believes the military option should remain on the table. According to Guttman, that suggests there is “some kind of dissonance between the Israeli and the American approach.” Guttman says Israelis are concerned that Washington’s new approach to Iran, which puts “engagement before military action,” might enable the Iranians to take advantage of this time to complete their nuclear program.”

Future Prospects

The United States has had contentious relations with Iran for nearly 30 years, when revolutionaries seized the U.S. Embassy there and held American hostages. In consequence, diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed. Now the new U.S. administration is extending a hand to Iran – offering a dialogue based on mutual respect. Some analysts say the beginning of a new relationship could be cemented at a U.N.-sponsored international conference on Afghanistan at The Hague on March 31. Iran is among the 80 invitees. However, if U.S. and Iranian representatives do meet there, it would probably be with low expectations.

Earlier this week Iran’s Speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, said the dispute between the two countries is not an emotional issue that can be resolved by “sending congratulations.” President Obama says he expects steady progress in the relationship with Iran but no immediate change.