President Barack Obama is reaching out to the Iranian people in a new video with Farsi subtitles, saying the U.S. is prepared to end years of strained relations if Tehran tones down its bellicose rhetoric.
At the same time, Israeli President Shimon Peres is sending his own rare greeting to the Iranian people. The messages were timed to the festival of Nowruz, which means "new day" and is a major holiday in Iran marking the arrival of spring.
"So in this season of new beginnings, I would like to speak clearly to Iran's leaders," Obama said in the video. "We have serious differences that have grown over time. 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."
Obama has signaled a willingness to speak directly with Iran about its nuclear program and hostility toward Israel, a key U.S. ally. At his inauguration, the president said his administration would reach out to rival states, declaring "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
It's been a rough start for Obama.
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has criticized Obama as merely a continuation of President George W. Bush's policies toward Tehran's enemy, Israel. Khamenei has called Israel a "cancerous tumor" that is on the verge of collapse and has called for its destruction.
In his message Friday, Obama had a warning for Tehran: "This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said Iran would welcome talks with the U.S. — but only if there was mutual respect. Iranian officials have said that means the U.S. needs to stop accusing Iran of seeking to build nuclear weapons and supporting terrorism, charges Tehran has denied.
On Friday, Tehran sought to play down the significance of Obama's video.
Ahmadinejad's press adviser said that "minor changes will not end the differences."
Ali Akbar Javanfekr told the Iranian state-run English-language Press TV satellite station that Iran will never forget U.S. meddling in Tehran's affairs. The two countries broke off relations after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
In Israel, Peres' audio message took a tougher tone. He praised the people of Iran and said they would be better off without their hard-line leadership.
"I think the Iranian nation will topple these leaders — leaders that do not serve the people. In the end, people will understand this," Peres said.
Peres lauded Iran's ancient culture, calling it a noble nation and urging its "return to its rightful place among developed nations."
Peres spoke in Hebrew for most of the blessing, but then ended his address with a traditional Persian holiday greeting: "May your Nowruz be a victory, and every day be Nowruz!" The greeting was broadcast on the Voice of Israel's Farsi-language station, which is beamed to Iran.
Obama and his foreign policy team are looking for opportunities to engage Iran and help reduce tensions between the two countries, which increased during Bush's time in office.
"You, too, have 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."
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana urged Iranian officials to accept the U.S. president's outstretched hand.
"It's a very constructive message," he said Friday at an EU summit in Brussels. "I hope that will open a new chapter in relations with Tehran."
Solana added, "I hope very much that Iran will act intelligently" and accept the U.S. offer.
Serious differences remain
The White House said the United States still has serious differences with Iran, particularly on the threat a nuclear-armed Tehran poses to the region. But aides said the president's message was a way to speak directly to Iranians about the U.S. commitment to work with the country.
The video also was an attempt to bypass government leaders. Obama has said there are unelected leaders in Iran who could change the countries' position of hostility.
The White House said a Farsi subtitled version of the video would be given to select news outlets in the region. At the same time, the video would be available online in English and with Farsi captions.
The holiday Nowruz is not Islamic; Iranians of all religions celebrate the 12-day event. Traditionally, the U.S. president and secretary of state release statements for Nowruz.
"For nearly three decades relations between our nations have been strained," Obama said in his video message. "But at this holiday we are reminded of the common humanity that binds us together."