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Obama delivers holiday greetings to Iran

His Persian New Year's message stresses the potential for peaceful cooperation between Iran and the U.S.

March 20, 2009|Mike Dorning

WASHINGTON — President Obama early today broadcast a speech to Iran's public offering greetings for a pre-Islamic New Year's holiday widely celebrated in the country.

The speech, which stressed the potential for peaceful cooperation with Iran, continued a series of attempts by Obama to directly engage public opinion in Muslim nations.

The image of a U.S. president delivering a speech in commemoration of the Nowruz holiday was unusual, though President Bush did several interviews marking the occasion last year, including one with the Voice of America.

The White House distributed video of the Obama speech, subtitled in the Iranian language of Farsi, to news outlets.

"In this season of new beginnings, I would like to speak clearly to Iran's leaders," said Obama, who despite vociferous criticism from opponents declared during his presidential campaign that he would be willing to meet with leaders of Iran and other hostile nations.

"The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations," he added. "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."

Like the Bush administration, the Obama administration has deep differences with Iran over its efforts to develop nuclear weapons technology and its support for Islamic extremist groups linked to terrorism, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The video commemorating Nowruz follows an overture to Muslim nations that Obama included in his inaugural address. Obama underscored his efforts to engage Islamic audiences by granting his first White House television interview as president to Al Arabiya, a Dubai, United Arab Emirates-based Arabic satellite news channel with a large following in the Middle East.

Obama also pledged during the campaign to give a major address in an Islamic forum within his first 100 days in office, a commitment advisors say he intends to keep, although they have cautioned that he may not deliver it within the timeline he set.

Nowruz is a 12-day originally Zoroastrian holiday that begins today. The name means "new day," and the holiday marks the beginning of spring and the Zoroastrian new year.

After Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979, the ruling ayatollahs tried but failed to stamp out Nowruz, which they considered pagan because it predates Islam. The holiday continues to be widely celebrated in Iran.

Before the beginning of Nowruz, Iranians typically prepare with a spring cleaning of their homes and the purchase of new clothes and flowers. The holiday begins with a ritual meal, in which families gather around a table set with seven symbolic foods. The holiday typically ends with a picnic to celebrate the arrival of spring.

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mdorning@tribune.com

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