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Obama must treat Iran as key regional player: analysts

world Updated: Jan 28, 2009 19:03 IST

AFP
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New US President Barack Obama must view Iran as a strategic player if he wishes to achieve regional peace rather than limiting his policy to Tehran's controversial nuclear drive, analysts said on Wednesday.

Both Washington and Tehran have an interest in the wider Middle East and an easing of tensions between the two archfoes is key to ushering in peace in the volatile region, they said.

Mohammad Saleh Sedghian, head of Tehran-based think tank the Arab-Iranian Studies Centre, said both administrations were watching each other closely to determine their next steps.

"The Iranians are watching the Americans' practical moves and the Americans, especially Obama, are expecting Iran to help them take the correct position on Tehran's nuclear plan and Iran's role concerning Hezbollah and Hamas," he said, referring to militant groups in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

Officials in Washington accuse Tehran of arming and funding the two Islamist movements as well as Shiite fighters in Iraq where US forces are battling sectarian strife and a raging insurgency.

Tehran denies the charges but acknowledges offering moral support to Hezbollah and financial aid to the Hamas government in Gaza.

But on Monday Obama, in contrast to his predecessor George W. Bush who refused talks with Iran until it halted sensitive nuclear work, extended a diplomatic hand towards Tehran.

"As I said in my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us," Obama said in an interview with pan-Arabic television Al-Arabiya.

"It is very important for us to make sure that we are using all the tools of US power, including diplomacy, in our relationship with Iran."

On Wednesday Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he would welcome Obama's plan if it contained "real change" but he also demanded an apology for past US "crimes" against Iran.

Obama's policies towards Iran are expected to be guided by Tehran's own approach to its nuclear programme, which many Western nations suspect is a cover for ambitions to build the atomic bomb.

Washington's ambassdor to the United Nations, Susan Rice, on Monday pledged "direct" support to Tehran if it halts uranium enrichment, the process which makes fuel for nuclear plants but can be extended to make the core of an atomic bomb.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- plus Germany (known as the P5-plus-1) have offered Tehran economic and energy incentives in exchange for freezing enrichment.

But Tehran is pressing on with the sensitive work, insisting its nuclear programme is peaceful and solely geared toward electricity generation.

Frederic Tellier, Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group, insisted that Obama has to treat Iran as a regional player.

"The Iranian leadership expects a comprehensive and equal-to-equal dialogue with the US," Tellier told AFP.

"This will require a strategic vision that accepts Iran as a key player in the Middle East and a necessary interlocutor on critical issues which both Washington and Tehran have a deep national interest in discussing, including the stabilisation of conflict zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine and elsewhere."

He also said Washington's strategy should not be based on the outcome of Iran's presidential election in June.

"Such a strategy would lead the regime to denounce the US for interfering in the elections," he said, adding that "not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Iran's supreme leader) is in charge of strategic issues."

An early glimpse of Washington's thoughts was seen on Tuesday when chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, hinted that Iran had a role to play in the region, especially in stabilising Afghanistan where a resurgent Taliban is becoming a major headache for US-led forces.

"Iran, as a bordering state, plays a role as well and to the degree that we are able to dialogue with them and find some mutual interests, there is a potential there for moving ahead together," he said.

Hamid Reza Jalaipur, a sociology professor in Tehran, said if Iran fails to take advantage of a more flexible US policy it would be hurt in the future "since Obama will seek support of Europe, the UN and the Arabs to pressure Iran."

Tellier said what is needed is a "swift and decisive" push by Obama to revise Washington's view of Iran.

"Iran's expectation relies on a new cognitive system, a new diplomatic vision defining the regional role the US wants Iran to play."

"This demand cannot be satisfied by low-level initiatives. It requires a high-level initiative that carries a strategic vision of Iran's regional place and role."