TEHRAN, Iran – Iran's hard-line president said Wednesday that his country welcomes talks with the United States should the American president prove to be "honest" in extending its hand toward Iran, one of the strongest signals yet that Tehran welcomes Barack Obama's calls for dialogue.
Ahmadinejad comments come after Obama said his administration is looking for opportunities to engage Iran and pledged to rethink Washington's relationship with Tehran. At his inauguration in January, Obama said his administration would reach out to rival states, saying "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
Last month, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rebuffed Obama's video message on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian new year, in which the president reached out to the Iranian people. Khamenei said Tehran was still waiting to see concrete changes in U.S. policy.
But Ahmadinejad offered a more conciliatory tone Wednesday.
"The Iranian nation welcomes a hand extended to it should it really and truly be based on honesty, justice and respect," Ahmadinejad said in a speech broadcast live on state television.
Ahmadinejad, however, said Obama will meet the fate of former President George W. Bush if he is proved not to be honest.
"But if, God forbid, the extended hand has an honest appearance but contains no honesty in content, it will meet the same response the Iranian nation gave to Mr. Bush," Ahmadinejad said.
Iranian leaders have struck a moderate — but cautious — tone about Obama since his election in November. Ahmadinejad sent Obama a message of congratulations after he was elected — the first time an Iranian leader offered such wishes to the winner of a U.S. presidential race since the two countries broke off relations.
Diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Iran were cut after the U.S. Embassy hostage-taking that followed the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The revolution toppled the pro-U.S. shah and brought to power a government of Islamic clerics.
The United States cooperated with Iran in late 2001 and 2002 in the Afghanistan conflict, but the promising contacts fizzled — and were extinguished completely when Bush branded Tehran part of the "Axis of Evil."