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Wed 21 Jan 2009 09:38 AM

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Iranian doubts Obama can change relations

Media in Mideast country sceptical if new US president can thaw ties with Iran.

Most Iranian media on Tuesday ignored Barack Obama's inauguration as US president, while people in Tehran voiced scepticism about a possible thaw in ties between Tehran and Washington.

State television stations preferred to lead their news reports on demonstrations of support for the Palestinians, while some newspapers also judged the inauguration was not a front page story.

The ultra-conservative Kayhan daily dubbed Obama as "a big fan of Zionists," below a cartoon that showed outgoing US President George W. Bush handing the Israeli flag to the new Democratic US leader.

The conservative Hamshahri ran a sarcastic headline: "The change advocate, who changed," noting what it described as Obama's "recent change of tone" to support war policies of the previous Republican administration.

After Obama's inauguration, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Iran will await the "practical policies" of the new US president before passing judgement on his position on the Islamic state, the official Irna news agency reported.

He also called on Obama to take a new look at the Middle East, saying that the "traditional way of looking at it ... will bring nothing".

Obama has vowed diplomatic engagement with Iran but Hillary Clinton, his choice for secretary of state, has repeated the Bush's administration stance of "not taking any option off the table" - which includes military action - in relations with the Islamic republic.

Washington severed ties with Iran in 1980 in the wake of the Islamic revolution after Islamist students stormed the US embassy in Tehran and held 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days.

Bush's outgoing administration refused to engage in direct negotiations with Iran unless it first stopped enriching uranium, material which Washington fears could be used to build an atomic bomb.

Tehran, facing pressure and economic sanctions spearheaded by Washington, says its nuclear programme is purely for peaceful purposes.

Tehran university students belonging to the Islamist group of Basij (volunteers) took an openly hostile tone towards the new US administration as they celebrated the "victory of Hamas in Gaza" against Israel.

"They stopped threatening us with military attack, but they increase economic sanctions against us and continue to be hostile toward us," a young philosophy student, Abdollah Bani Hassani, told AFP.

A fellow student, Behrouz Khan Mohammadi, called Obama "a puppet."

"The US policy does not depend on one person. It is the Israelis who decide the policy."

A female Islamist student, Rayhaneh, criticised Obama for being "only a slogan chanter."

"He would possibly start a dialogue but it will have no result because what Iran wants is 180 degrees different from what the United States wants," she said.

Iranians on the street were also pessimistic about the chance of a change in relations between the two governments.

"As long as Iran takes the same anti-Israeli position, there will be no change," a 21-year-old unemployed man, Ali Reza Hedayati, asserted.

"Like his predecessor, Obama wants Iran to suspend uranium enrichment," he added.

Some Iranians, while lamenting the contribution of US pressure to the difficult economic situation, believe Tehran's attitude toward Washington is also a hardening factor in the hostility between the two countries.

"According to Imam Ali (successor of the Islam's prophet Mohammad), poverty brings corruption and we will become poorer with these sanctions," a young student, Taher Aghai, said.

"We are responsible for what we go through and for the pressures exerted against our country. Fortunately countries like China refuse to sanction us otherwise we would have been finished," said Hojat, a businessman aged 34.

A 42-year-old businessman, Babak, said he wants a change of policy by the both sides.

"If we have had at least a more moderate stance inside the country, we could have been hopeful that things (will) change under Obama's administration."

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