ASTANA (Reuters) - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Monday welcomed overtures by U.S. President Barack Obama but said Tehran was waiting for concrete steps to back up his words.
In a turnaround in U.S. diplomacy, Obama has said he wants better ties with the Islamic Republic and offered a new start in relations after decades of mistrust. Iran has so far given a cautious response to Obama’s overtures.
Speaking in Kazakhstan during an official visit, Ahmadinejad said he welcomed “change and reform” but made it clear Tehran expected Washington to make the next move.
“We are waiting for this change,” he said. “We hope that his (Obama‘s) views are based on the necessity for reform and change of policy. We hope he can achieve that.”
The United States cut off ties with Tehran during the 1979-1981 crisis in which militant Iranian students held dozens of U.S. diplomats hostage at the U.S. embassy for 444 days.
It has accused Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons and suspects Iran uses its civilian nuclear programme as a cover. Tehran says it is developing only peaceful nuclear energy.
However, unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, who described Iran as part of an “axis of evil” posing a security risk, Obama has shown a willingness to kickstart relations.
He has also promised to improve ties with the Muslim world after the September 11 attacks, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a speech to the parliament of largely Muslim Turkey on Monday, Obama said the United States “is not, and will never be, at war with Islam.”
He made early gestures to Iran during his inaugural address in January and last month released a video message to the Iranian regime and its people, urging a new beginning.
Then, Aliakbar Javanfekr, an aide to Ahmadinejad, said Iran was waiting for “practical steps” from the United States.
Iran’s top authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said Obama’s offer of better ties is a “slogan,” but pledged Tehran would respond to any concrete policy shift.
While reaching out to Iran, Obama’s administration has also warned of tougher sanctions if it continues to defy U.N. demands to halt its sensitive nuclear work.
In Prague on Sunday, Obama said Iran had a “clear choice” of halting its nuclear activity or facing increased isolation.
Iranian officials have repeatedly shrugged off the impact of U.S. and U.N. sanctions but analysts say tumbling oil prices since mid-2008 may make the world’s fourth-largest crude producer more vulnerable to such pressure.
Analysts have also said Iran is setting tough conditions for dialogue to buy time. Adding to uncertainty, it holds a presidential election in June that could strengthen moderate voices backing detente over more hardline opponents.
Ahmadinejad, however, reserved strong words to criticise the United States when he spoke about the global financial crisis and blamed the Western world for the downturn.
“This is not just a financial crisis,” he said. “It’s a moral crisis, it’s a crisis of ideas. The capitalist economy is a false economy.”
Additional reporting by Frederik Dahl in Tehran; Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Alison Williams