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Obama Offers New Start With Iran In Video Appeal

(RFE/RL) -- In a videotaped message to the Iranian people, U.S. President Barack Obama has offered Iran a "new beginning" in its relations with the United States.

Obama's message coincided with the start of spring, celebrated in the region with festivities known as Norouz. It's also the moment when the Iranian calendar marks the start of the new year.

The Norouz holiday is a time when families receive visitors and decorate a table with seven items that start with the Persian letter "S," including a hyacinth, an apple, lintel sprouts, and a coin. Usually there are additional symbols of renewed life -- including goldfish and decorated eggs and perhaps the poems of the classical poet Hafez -- on the table.

Obama came as a visitor, speaking respectfully but frankly as he offered his vision of future relations.

"So on the occasion of your New Year, I want you, the people and leaders of Iran, to understand the future that we seek," Obama said. "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."

'Rightful Place'

Obama did not detail the differences that keep Iran and the United States at odds. They include Iran's nuclear program -- which Washington believes is aimed at acquiring weapons -- and Tehran's support of groups like Hamas and Hizballah, which Washington considers terrorist organizations.

But he did say it is time for Iran to make a choice.

"The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations," Obama said. "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. And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create."

The Norouz message fulfills a campaign promise by Obama to try to engage Tehran in dialogue as he confronts the Iran nuclear crisis. It also follows up his inaugural address, in which he promised Washington's adversaries that he would "extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

The effort drew wary praise in first official reactions from Tehran. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's press adviser said "we welcome the wish of the president of the United States to put away past differences."

But, Ali Akbar Javanfekr added, "[Obama] has to go further than words and take action."

The adviser said the United States is "mainly responsible" for the differences between Tehran and Washington and that "the only source of instability in the region is the American military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan."

'I Am Proud Of Obama'

The Obama administration has already invited Iran to an international conference on Afghanistan later this month. Tehran has said it will consider the offer.

Obama's Norouz message, broadcast on Voice of America television, received a warm reception from listeners of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which broadcasts in Persian.

"I am proud of Obama," one caller said. "Despite the fact that our government held Americans as hostages for a long time, Mr. Obama has extended his friendship to Iranians and Iranian government and congratulates our Norouz. I ask the Iranian government to extend its friendship to the world."

Another caller said, "I appreciate Mr. Obama's message . I don't think that this regime would understand this message because they are against all Iranian traditions."

"Our best gift for Norouz is Mr. Obama's message," another said, "and I hope that Iranian leaders pay attention to this message."

The U.S. president's initiative also drew praise in Europe.

"I think it's a very constructive message," said EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, speaking to journalists in Brussels. "I hope very much that the Iranians will pay good attention to what has been said by President Obama. I hope that that will open a new chapter in relations with Tehran."

'This Is The Best Way'

The EU has offered Iran incentives to give up controversial elements of its nuclear program, as demanded by the UN. But Brussels also supports ratcheting up sanctions if refuses to do so.

Moscow also welcomed Obama's outreach to Iran.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov said he believes the nuclear crisis can only be solved through open communication.

"We welcome [Obama's message]. We think it's important that the new U.S. administration intends to reach out to Iran in the political and diplomatic sphere," Ryabkov said. "We believe this is the best way to resolve concerns shared by the United States and the international community with regard to Iran's nuclear program."

Ryabkov said Tehran must show that its nuclear program is "exclusively peaceful."

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