Iran Rejects Obama Offer for 'New Beginning'

Khamenei: We haven't seen any change in U.S. policy; Obama makes videotape appeal to Tehran.

Iran's supreme leader said on Saturday he saw no change in U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic, a day after U.S. President Barack Obama issued an unprecedented videotaped appeal to the country.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sharply criticized U.S. behavior toward Iran since its 1979 Islamic revolution and said the United States was "hated in the world" and should stop interfering in other countries' internal affairs.

"They give the slogan of change but in practice no change is seen.... We haven't seen any change," Khamenei said in a televised speech to mark the Iranian New Year.

He was speaking in the northeastern city of Mashhad, a day after Obama offered Iran a "new beginning" of diplomatic engagement between the two old foes.

Khamenei said a change of U.S. "words" was not enough and added: "We will watch and we will judge [the new U.S. administration].... You change, our behavior will change."

The cleric, in line with Iran's constitution, has the final say on all state affairs.

Obama on Friday issued a videotaped appeal to Iran 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 New York Times reported on Friday that among other measures being weighed are a direct communication from Obama to Khamenei, and an end to a ban on direct contact between junior American diplomats and their Iranian counterparts around the world.

In an unusually swift reaction to Obama's overture, a senior official said Iran welcomed "the interest of the American government to settle differences."

But Aliakbar Javanfekr, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's press adviser, said the Obama administration "should realize its previous mistakes and make an effort to amend them."

"By fundamentally changing its behavior America can offer us a friendly hand," he told Reuters. "Unlimited sanctions which still continue and have been renewed by the United States are wrong and need to be reviewed," he said.

Javanfekr singled out U.S. backing for Israel, Iran's main enemy in the region, saying that: "Supporting Israel is not a friendly gesture."

Javanfekr stressed that minor changes will not end the differences between Iran and the U.S, telling 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.

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 U.S. 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."

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said on Friday he hoped Iran would pay close attention to Obama's appeal.

"I hope that that will open a new chapter in relations with Iran," he told reporters before heading into an EU summit, noting that the West still had to tackle a dispute with Tehran over its nuclear program.

The U.S. is at loggerheads with Iran over its nuclear aspirations, which Washington says are aimed at building atomic weapons, while Tehran insists it is for the peaceful generation of electricity.

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.