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Opinion: Obama's Promising Mideast Beginning

The Mitchell Mideast mission, US President Obama's offer to talk with Iran as well as Ahmadinejad's positive reaction are a sign of hope for the region, says DW's Peter Philipp.

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Washington's new tone is getting an initially positive -- even if partially cautious -- reaction in the Near and Middle East. Especially in Iran: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promptly reacted to US President Barack Obama's renewed announcement that he's ready to engage with Tehran directly. Ahmadinejad said that he welcomed the will to change, but that it remains to be seen whether this is real policy or simply political tactics. By doing so, the Iranian president for his part has opened to door to an Iranian-American dialog -- at least a little bit.

Peter Philipp

Peter Philipp

Thirty years after the Islamic revolution, even Iranian hardliners seem to have realized that dialog is better than confrontation -- or at least that diplomacy is better than policies of mutual demonization and accusations that's practiced all too often. It would have been extremely foolish to slam the door in Obama's face. Many, however, had expected exactly this from Ahmadinejad, the West's favorite bogeyman. Still, it's hardly surprising that the Iranian president presents his conditions for a dialog with Washington: The US have to apologize for their "past crimes" against Iran, they should withdraw their troops that are stationed around the globe and stop getting involved in everything. They should end their support for Israel.

Serious American experts on Iran have long argued that Washington should apologize for the CIA-backed putsch of 1953 -- as well as US support for Saddam Hussein at the beginning of the First Gulf War. Only such a gesture could help to improve the climate of mutual relations. As far as the withdrawal from Iraq is concerned, Obama hardly needs Ahmadinejad's call for action. It's also unlikely that he plans to stay in Afghanistan any longer than absolutely necessary -- whatever this may mean in the end. In the case of Israel, the Iranian president's demand will fall on deaf ears in the "new Washington." The US-Israeli relationship certainly won't be sacrificed for the sake of a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran.

But even in this area a slow change is possible. The first trip of the new Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, has at least been welcomed by the Arab side as it shows that the new US president is really interested in solving the pressing problems. That's why not only Egyptians, but also Hamas spokesmen welcomed the Mitchell mission as a positive step. Hamas spokesmen only regretted that Washington still isn't willing to talk to them.

In Israel on the other hand, it's hard to ignore the underlying feeling -- despite all the friendly words -- that the "golden times" of unconditional support by George W. Bush's Washington are a thing of the past.

True: It's impossible to glean groundbreaking policies from these first steps. But -- and this is the most astounding thing of all -- one could almost learn a lesson from Ahmadinejad's reaction -- with the noted exception of his unchanging hostile approach towards Israel.

There are times when you have to set aside anger, bitterness and the dreams of the past to reach a better future. This does not have to result in self-abandonment. Needless to say, everyone can enter a dialog with his views and demands. But these cannot be insurmountable conditions and they cannot aim to destroy or completely demean the other side.

Hamas and Israel can learn from this, as can the US and Iran. As far as Washington and Tehran are concerned, the ball seems to have been skillfully lobbed back into the Americans' court.

Peter Philipp is Deutsche Welle's chief correspondent and a Middle East expert (win).

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