WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama renewed his call for direct U.S. dialogue with Iran, saying he hoped to create the conditions to "start sitting across the table, face to face" in the coming months.
"I think there's the possibility, at least, of a relationship of mutual respect and progress," Obama said at the first news conference of his young presidency, but "it's time now for Iran to send some signals that it wants to act differently."
Obama said his administration is reviewing relations between Washington and Tehran, and looking for a new approach despite concerns over its suspect nuclear program, support for Hamas and Hezbollah and bellicose remarks aimed at Israel.
"My expectation is, in the coming months, we will be looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table face-to-face with diplomatic overtures that will allow us to move our policy in the new direction," he said.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Tuesday that Tehran is ready for dialogue with Washington "under equal conditions and with mutual respect."
Obama pledged during the 2008 White House race to break with what he described as predecessor George W. Bush's unproductive and confrontational policy towards Iran, and ordered a review of relations shortly after taking office Jan. 20.
"There's been a lot of mistrust built up over the years, so it's not going to happen overnight," he said of a possible thaw in ties.
"And it's important that, even as we engage in this direct diplomacy, we are very clear about certain deep concerns that we have as a country, that Iran understands that we find the funding of terrorist organizations unacceptable, that we're clear about the fact that a nuclear Iran could set off a nuclear arms race in the region that would be profoundly destabilizing," said Obama.
The West suspects Iran of secretly trying to build an atomic bomb and fears the technology used to launch a space rocket could be diverted to developing long-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
The White House, which has ordered a review of US policy toward Tehran, recently pledged that the United States will use "all elements of our national power to deal with Iran" after the Islamic Republic said it had launched a satellite into orbit.
The message from White House press secretary Robert Gibbs left open the possibility that the United States would consider using military force against Tehran to make it toe the international line.
Iran's upcoming presidential election in June, however, might provide an opening for US-Iran rapprochement.
Iran's hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is being challenged in the election by reformist cleric and former president Mohammad Khatami, who favored detente with the West during his 1997-2005 rule and is backed to win by the international community.
Ahmadinejad, has come under fire at home for his expansionist economic policies, and his first four-year term has been marked by a sharp deterioration in ties with the West over the country's nuclear programme.
Iran denies its nuclear program is military in nature and has continued with uranium enrichment, insisting it is only being done to generate electricity.
Iran on Tuesday will celebrate 30 years of the Islamic revolution that toppled the US-backed shah, and will showcase a replica of its first domestically-built satellite, Omid (Hope) it launched on February 2.
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