(Adds quotes and background)
By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON, March 20 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama issued an unprecedented videotaped appeal to Iran on Friday offering a “new beginning” of diplomatic engagement to turn the page on decades of U.S. policy toward America’s longtime foe.
“My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties,” Obama said in a message released to select Middle East broadcast outlets timed for an Iranian holiday celebration.
Obama went further than he has since taking office on Jan. 20 in extending an olive branch to Tehran, which has been locked in bitter disputes with Washington over Iranian nuclear ambitions and support for militant Islamic groups.
The Obama administration — in a major shift from former President George W. Bush’s isolation policy towards Iran, which he once branded part of an “axis of evil” — has expressed an openness to face-to-face diplomatic contacts with Tehran.
Reaching out directly to Iranian leaders and their people, Obama said: “This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.”
He said the United States wanted Iran to take its “rightful place in the community of nations,” but also insisted that Tehran do its part to achieve reconciliation.
“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,” Obama said.
“The measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create,” he added, alluding to Iran’s contested nuclear program and its missile development efforts.
To stress the seriousness of Obama’s overture, the White House distributed the videotape with Farsi subtitles and posted it on its website to coincide with Iranian observance of the ancient festival of Nowruz, celebrating the arrival of spring.
“I would like to speak directly to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Obama said in a conciliatory tone that contrasted sharply with Bush’s hardline approach. “We seek the promise of a new beginning.”
Obama’s willingness to talk to U.S. enemies like Iran has been welcomed internationally as a departure from what many saw as Bush’s go-it-alone “cowboy diplomacy” epitomized by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Though Obama stopped short of specific offers, he said he was seeking “a future with renewed exchanges among our people and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce.”
However, he acknowledged, “This won’t be reached easily.”
The United States is at loggerheads with Iran over its nuclear program, which Washington says is aimed at building atomic weapons, while Tehran insists it is for the peaceful generation of electricity.
Obama has also insisted that Iran end support for groups the United States considers terrorist organizations and cease “bellicose language” toward U.S. ally Israel.
The United States cut off diplomatic ties with Iran during the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, in which a group of militant Iranian students held 52 U.S. diplomats hostage at the American Embassy for 444 days.
Obama has said the United States is prepared to extend a hand of peace to Iran if it “unclenched its fist.” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said he is open to talks with Washington, but has demanded a fundamental change to U.S. policy in the Middle East.
In what was seen as an initial overture, the Obama administration said recently it would invite Tehran to an international conference on Afghanistan later this month. Iran has said it would consider the invitation.