Iran Reacts To Obama's Olive Branch

President Obama delivered a video message to the Iranian people to mark the Iranian festival of Nowruz, which celebrates the arrival of spring. What are the initial responses from Tehran?

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President Obama today noted the start of the Iranian New Year, Nowruz, by releasing a holiday message to the people and the government of Iran. Mr. Obama acknowledged the long history of Iran's civilization and its accomplishments in the modern era, and he called for improved relations between Iran and the United States.

NPR's Mike Shuster reports.

MIKE SCHUSTER: American presidents have issued Nowruz greetings before, but none has gone as far to offer the concrete possibility of improved ties and diplomatic engagement that was contained in President Obama's Nowruz message.

President BARACK OBAMA: Today I want to extend my very best wishes to all who are celebrating Nowruz around the world.

SHUSTER: Nowruz is an ancient celebration reaching back to the Zoroastrian tradition of Persia, centuries before the arrival of Islam. It is the beginning of the Iranian New Year, traditionally celebrated on the first day of spring. Much like the western holidays around the new year, it begins with a festive holiday meal.

The table is set with seven symbolic objects, including wheat sprouts for rebirth, goldfish for life and decorated eggs. There are many visits to family members, the exchange of gifts, and in Iran, two weeks of leisure. Mr. Obama used this holiday as an opportunity, for the first time since he became president, to reach out directly to Iran. He addressed his remarks to both the people and the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Pres. OBAMA: 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.

SHUSTER: For much of the past decade, threats have dominated the interaction between the U.S. and Iran, frequent threats coming from both sides. Mr. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, did make similar sounding appeals to Iran, but he sought to separate Iran's people from its government. In his holiday message today, Mr. Obama did not make that distinction.

Pres. OBAMA: 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. And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create.

SHUSTER: Reaction in Iran has been slow in coming. Both Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei and its President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad released Nowruz messages of their own, but they did not refer to President Obama's holiday greeting. A spokesman for Ahmadinejad, Ali Akbar Javinfekr said so far the Obama administration has offered just talk, which he said, is not enough to solve the problems between the two nations. Specifically, Javinfekr criticized the economic sanctions that the U.S. maintains against Iran.

But in his remarks, President Obama made reference to the future he seeks with Iran, renewed exchanges among our people, and his words, greater opportunities for partnership and commerce. Greater opportunities for commerce suggests a willingness to review the sanctions the U.S. has maintained for years against Iran.

The Obama administration has already made a step toward partnership with Iran in the recent offer to include Tehran in a regional discussion of the worsening situation in Afghanistan. The State Department has also removed the decades-old restriction on American diplomats talking to their Iranian counterparts around the world.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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