Obama Comments May Help Iranian Moderates

In his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo Thursday, President Obama said Iran had a clear choice on the future it wants to build for its people.

Borzou Daragahi, Middle East correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, says reaction to the comments has been mixed in the Islamic Republic.

"On the one hand, you had conservatives who are rather skeptical, still, of Obama's rhetoric," he says. "They think that it's not going to be followed by action. ... On the other hand, you have much more moderate folks, more reformist figures in the establishment and the society who ... welcome the outreach as genuine and unprecedented."

Daragahi says Obama's popularity in Iran is changing the dynamics within the political establishment in that country, forcing a reconsideration of the government's anti-U.S. stance.

"You can see that in the political rhetoric between the candidates as they prepare for elections June 12," he says, adding Obama's speech and its timing will help the moderate candidates.

Obama's Speech Prompts Guarded Optimism

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech just outside Tehran, Iran. i i

hide captionIranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech during a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at his mausoleum just outside Tehran, Iran. Khamenei says the nations of the Middle East "hate the United States from the bottom of their hearts."

Sajjad Safari/Mehr News Agency/AP
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech just outside Tehran, Iran.

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech during a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at his mausoleum just outside Tehran, Iran. Khamenei says the nations of the Middle East "hate the United States from the bottom of their hearts."

Sajjad Safari/Mehr News Agency/AP

Much of the Muslim world and Israel reacted with guarded optimism to President Obama's speech Thursday in Cairo, Egypt, but Iran's supreme leader rebuffed the message of conciliation, saying mere words could not erase deep hatred of the United States.

In a speech aimed at setting a new tone for U.S.-Muslim relations after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Obama told an audience at Cairo University that he seeks "a new beginning ... based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

Obama said Israel must halt settlements in the West Bank and that Palestinians must have their own independent state.

A spokeswoman for Jewish settlers in the West Bank criticized the speech as "out of touch with reality." And a joint statement from several radical Palestinian factions, including Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement that controls the Gaza Strip, dismissed the address as an attempt to "mislead people."

Obama promised a withdrawal from Iraq by 2012 and said the U.S. has no desire for bases or a permanent military presence in Afghanistan.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, called Obama's speech "a good start and an important step toward a new American policy."

He said Obama's reference to the suffering of the Palestinians is a "clear message to Israel that a just peace is built on the foundations of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital."

Israel said it hopes Obama's message can help lead to "the beginning of the end" of conflict between with the Arab world. A government statement Thursday said Israel will "do all it can" to widen regional peace while preserving its own security.

In his speech, Obama recalled his childhood spent in Indonesia, where he "heard the call of the azaan (call to prayer) at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk." At several points in the speech, he referred to the Quran, the Muslim holy book, and its teachings of peace.

"The use of Quranic sayings plays a big part in a positive change of picture, but there is a necessity for action," said Iraqi government spokesman Ali Al-Dabbagh, who called the speech "historic and important" and "a new start."

Obama referred to the difficult past relations between Tehran and Washington and the current dispute over Iran's nuclear ambitions, saying that "any nation — including Iran" should be able to pursue a peaceful nuclear program.

But the reaction from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, showed no sign that relations could be eased. He said the nations of the Middle East "hate the United States from the bottom of their hearts."

"The new U.S. government seeks to transform this image," Khamenei said at the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the radical cleric who led the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. "I say firmly that this will not be achieved by talking, speeches and slogans."

Obama's address coincided with the release of remarks by Osama bin Laden that appeared aimed at trying to undermine any message of reconciliation. The al-Qaida leader said Muslims' alliances with Christians and Jews would annul their faith and urged them to fight allies of Westerners in Muslim countries.

Obama reserved a strong rebuke for Muslims who promote attacks against innocents, saying the Quran condemns such acts and stating clearly that the U.S. will "relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security."

"We reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women and children," he said. "And it is my first duty as president to protect the American people."

"Obama's speech is an attempt to mislead people and create more illusions to improve America's aggressive image in the Arab and Islamic world," said a joint statement by eight Damascus, Syria-based radical Palestinian factions, including Hamas.

Reaction among ordinary Muslims, from Algeria to Indonesia, was mixed.

Baghdad resident Mithwan Hussein called Obama "brave" and hoped for "a new chapter with the Islamic and Arab nations."

But a refugee at the Baqaa refugee camp in Jordan was skeptical and wondered if it wasn't just the latest empty rhetoric from an American president.

"Bush and Clinton said the same about a Palestinian state, but they've done nothing, so why should we believe this guy?" said Ali Tottah, 82, who is originally from the West Bank town of Nablus.

Said Lacet, 56, a civil servant in Algeria, said, "Obama is clearly admitting that Bush's military offensive in Iraq was a mistake."

Edi Kusyanto, a teacher from the school in Jakarta, Indonesia, that Obama attended as a child, said he thinks the U.S. president envisions "a world that is pluralistic, where different religions can live peacefully together." But in the end, he said, it was "still a speech about what America wants."

In concluding his remark, Obama quoted passages promoting nonviolence from the Quran, the Talmud and the Bible to highlight the similarity of the teachings and the interest of all to live together peacefully.

But the reaction of some Israeli settlers in the West Bank showed just how difficult that reconciliation could prove.

Aliza Herbst, a spokeswoman for Yesha, the West Bank settlers' council, dismissed Obama's speech as "naive" and "out of touch with reality."

"You can have your speechwriters find every good thing a Muslim has ever done," she said. "But more modern history is that the Muslim world is at war with the Western world."

From NPR staff and wire reports

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