(CNSNews.com) – Better relations between the United States and Iran will depend on Washington dropping its animosity and criticism, ending sanctions and unfreezing assets, and ending its “unconditional support” for Israel, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared at the weekend.
“If you change, we will change too,” Khamenei said during an address at one of Shia Islam’s most prominent shrines, marking the first day of Nowruz, the Persian new year. The comments were directed at President Obama, who in a videotaped message to Iranians on Friday offered “engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.”
Thirty years after the Islamic revolution and accompanying U.S. Embassy seizure and hostage drama resulted in a severing of diplomatic ties, Obama in his Nowruz message said he sought “a new beginning,” a future of renewed exchanges, greater opportunities for partnership and commerce, with old divisions overcome.
The U.S., he said, wanted Iran “to take its rightful place in the community of nations” – a right that came with responsibilities: “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.”
The message, with Farsi subtitles, did not cite specific allegations, but the U.S. has long accused Iran of sponsoring terrorism in Lebanon, Israel and elsewhere, and suspects that its nuclear energy program – which it hid from the world for almost two decades before it was exposed by regime opponents in 2002 – is a cover for an drive to develop atomic bombs. Iran says it is for purely peaceful purposes.
Obama’s overture, hailed by leaders in Europe and Russia, came shortly before senior U.S. and Iranian diplomats will participate in multilateral meetings convened to discuss the situation in Afghanistan – in Moscow later this week and in the Netherlands four days later.
Tehran’s response came quickly – not from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who set the tone for acrimonious relations back in June 2005 by saying immediately after his election that Iran had “no need” for the U.S., but from Khamenei, who wields ultimate political and religious authority.
In what Iranian media described as a “counter-offer,” Khamenei laid down conditions for improved ties.
“Show us if really anything other than your language has changed,” the Mehr news agency quoted him as saying during his speech Saturday at the shrine in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city.
“Has your animosity with the Iranian nation changed? Have you unfrozen Iranian assets? Have you lifted sanctions? Have you stopped mudslinging? Have you ended unconditional support for the Zionist regime?”
Khamenei pointed out references in Obama’s Nowruz message to “terror” and “arms.”
“Is this congratulation, or repeating the same charges?” the cleric asked.
He also listed historical grievances, including sanctions, calls by some officials for regime change, support for Saddam Hussein during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, and the 1988 shooting down in the Gulf of an Iranian civilian airliner by a U.S. Navy cruiser. The USS Vincennes’ captain said the plane had been mistaken for a hostile military aircraft.
Iranian commentators noted that Obama’s message had not included apologies for these policies and incidents, a longstanding demand of Tehran.
On the other hand, his choice of the term “Islamic Republic of Iran” – used twice in the 556-word message – was viewed positively. Anoush Maleki of Iran’s state-funded Press TV called it “an explicit acceptance of the Islamic Revolution.”
Obama’s message did not include terms like “freedom,” “liberty” or “democracy.”
By contrast, President Bush’s words for the people of Iran, especially during his annual State of the Union addresses, were invariably linked to the prospects for political change in that country. His 2002 speech referred to “an unelected few repress[ing] the Iranian people’s hope for freedom.” In 2005, he told Iranians, “As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you.” The following year, he said, “Our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran.” And in 2008, “we look forward to the day when you have your freedom.”
“This statement by Obama may be an opportunity for the Iranian decision-makers to consider a u-turn on strategic matters, but the fact is that the regime feels it has the upper hand everywhere in the Middle East,” commented Mideast expert Whalid Phares.
“Why would they make concessions if their perception is that the U.S. is already withdrawing from Iraq, is requesting their help in Afghanistan and is not committed to support democracy in Iran?” he asked.
“Obama’s message was focused on behavioral change, not regime change,” the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) said in a statement welcoming Obama’s “wonderful” statement. “Recognizing that Iran has a rightful place among nations clarifies that America recognizes that a country and civilization of Iran’s size cannot be isolated and contained indefinitely.”
“By pointing out that this role comes with responsibilities, he signals Iran that its rightful role is within reach if its policies change,” said NIAC president Trita Parsi. “This is a significant break with the Bush Administration policies.”
‘We call for Iran to prosper’
Meanwhile, in a Nowruz message that has drawn far less attention, Israel’s ceremonial president Shimon Peres recalled the biblical Persian king Cyrus had allowed the ancient Jewish nation to return to Israel from their Babylonian exile.
“Iran and its people therefore have a special place in our heritage,” he said.
“Our relations with the Iranian people have also known good times in the modern period,” Peres said, referring to the years before the 1979 Islamic revolution. “We shared our experience in agriculture, industry, and scientific and medical development, and we cultivated the best possible relations.”
Today, however, ties were at their lowest point, he said, attributing this to Iranian leaders “who are driven to act in every way possible against the State of Israel and its people, and even to threaten us with their intention to destroy us.”
“At this time, when the current regime in Iran is calling for the destruction of Israel, we call for Iran to prosper,” he said. “We are certain and hopeful that the darkness and the evil will disappear from the world for the good of all of humanity.”
The message was carried on the Voice of Israel radio’s Farsi service, which is broadcast into Iran, according to the foreign ministry in Jerusalem.