The Iranian President says he is ready for 'real talks'. Katherine Butler reports from Tehran
After 30 years of hostility, enmity and poisoned rhetoric, Iran and the US moved a tentative step closer to rapprochement yesterday when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced he would welcome dialogue, provided America agrees to talk to Iran on an equal footing.
His remarks came a day after the US President, Barack Obama, said he was looking for opportunities to open direct talks with Iran. Indicating that he expects movement leading to face to face talks within months, he urged Iran to "send some signals that it wants to act differently".
In what could be seen as a direct response to the new American overture, Mr Ahmadinejad – a hardline populist whose time in power has been marked by a sharp deterioration in relations with the West over Iran's nuclear ambitions – went some way towards sending those signals. In a speech marking the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution – the event that killed off the relationship in 1979 – he said Iran was ready for talks as long as they were conducted "in a fair atmosphere based on mutual respect" and that the shift in US policy was genuine rather than tactical.
"The new US President has said that he wants to produce change; that he wants to talk to Iran. Obviously the Iranian nation is ready for real talks and real change," Mr Ahmadinejad told hundreds of thousands of supporters in Tehran. He was speaking at a rally marking the "Day of Victory" in 1979, when the pro-American Shah was ousted. In the three decades since the revolution and the hostage crisis of the same year, Iran and the US have had no direct diplomatic contacts.
Mr Ahmadinejad has until now shown little interest in deviating from the "death to America" rhetoric which has characterised official attitude to the West since 1979. Again yesterday, he used his Revolution Day speech to berate George Bush, "one of the worst men in history", who had sent his army to threaten Iran and who, he said, should be tried for war crimes.
But Mr Ahmadinejad's speech was shorter on anti-US rhetoric than usual, and appeared aimed at preparing his conservative supporters (some of whom attended the rally with effigies of Mr Bush) for a change of tone in dealings with Washington. "Today the world is ready for many changes... we must start dialogue with other countries. We are not threatening any country in the world," he said.
To chants of "Allahu akbar" (God is great) he said scientific achievements, such as sending an Iranian-made missile carrying a satellite into space last week, proved Iran was now "a new superpower in the world". But he steered away from defiant rhetoric on the nuclear standoff with America during the Bush years, when the US threatened to attack Iran's nuclear facilities to stop it building a nuclear weapon. "If you are really against nuclear bombs, then you must come and work with the Iranian people," said Mr Ahmadinejad. "We must remove all the nuclear bombs in the world." He praised God for helping the people of Gaza "to resist" in the recent conflict with Israel but avoided repetition of provocative past references to the Jewish state.
With Iran marking 30 years to the day since supporters of the Ayatollah Khomeini spilled on to the streets of Tehran in their millions, triggering the rebirth of the nation as an Islamic republic, big crowds turned out at the Azadi (Liberty) monument, the 1970s-built symbol of the revolution, to hear the President's message. He reassured his audience that after three decades the revolution was "immortal" rather than the spent force some in the West judge it to be. "Like a 30-year-old man, it is full of energy, very powerful, and resistant," he said.
Iran has always denied that its nuclear programme has military aims, insisting that it is enriching uranium simply to generate electricity.
Yesterday's speech was the climax of 10 official days of festivities marking the 30th anniversary of the revolution.
Yet there was a relatively relaxed atmosphere in the open spaces around the monument in western Tehran where the rally was held. Parachutists delighted the crowds by performing jumps into the park, confetti rained down from helicopters and stirring music played from loudspeakers as children waved flags and balloons.
As well as the signals to Washington, Mr Ahmadinejad used his speech in effect to launch his campaign for re-election when Iran goes to the polls in June. He vaunted his achievements with Iran's economy, literacy, science and technology, and drew contrasts with the term in office of Mohamed Khatami, the former reformist president who has pleased many Iranians by announcing he will mount an electoral challenge to Mr Ahmadinejad.
A crowd armed with sticks shouting "death to Khatami" tried to attack the former president yesterday but his supporters protected him, according to Mr Khatami's foundation.