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My 20 minutes with US President Barack Obama

By Bahman Kalbasi
BBC Persian

media captionBarack Obama's interview with BBC Persian in full

Interviewing US President Barack Obama, I felt a weight of responsibility.

This was the first time an Iranian reporter had interviewed President Obama, and our audience in Iran has a wide range of questions and concerns about the policies of United States government.

My challenge was to try to address those questions and concerns in just 20 minutes, the time I was given to interview the most powerful man in the world.

When we sat down for our interview, I thought President Obama had two basic points that he wanted to get across to our audience: his outrage at Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's conspiratorial comments regarding the tragic events of 9/11, and a message of peace and friendship to the people of Iran.

He wanted to convey that what he felt could be a good, productive relationship between the US and Iran was limited and curtailed by the fact that he had to deal with a belligerent and antagonistic regime in Tehran.

On the question of the latest economic sanctions against Iran, he insisted his policy remained consistent with his initial promise of more diplomacy and less hostile gestures compared with the previous US administration. He was quick to point to what he termed a global consensus over the imposition of these sanctions.

"That's not just my judgment," Mr Obama said. "That's the judgment of the international community, including countries like Russia and China that generally are very hesitant to impose sanctions on other countries. But they have consistently seen a behaviour on the part of the Iranian government that indicates that it has a nuclear programme that does not abide by international rules and that potentially poses a threat to the region as well as the world."

Human rights

So far as the collateral cost of these sanctions are concerned, President Obama expressed regret for any hardship this might cause ordinary Iranians but insisted that their own country's ruling regime was to blame for this hardship.

"I am obviously concerned about the Iranian people," he said, before adding: "The question is: Can the Iranian regime take a different approach that would help its people as opposed to harm its people?"

As for the possibility of a military strike against Iran, the president insisted that he did not take war lightly, and that he had had the full backing of the international community behind him in all his foreign policies so far. He also said he recognised that Iran was entitled to a peaceful nuclear programme.

He was keen to emphasise that his focus on the Iranian nuclear issue was not at the cost of pressing for improved human rights in Iran.

"Not just my administration, but I think all of America sees human rights, basic freedoms, the freedom to speak... freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom to choose your own government, freedom from fear and abuse from government, as central to who we are, central to our values, central to our foreign policy," he said. "And that applies around the world and it certainly applies in Iran."

On the Iranian opposition "green" movement, President Obama made supportive noises but tried to avoid appearing to be interfering in Iranian internal affairs.

On Afghanistan, President Obama repeated his stated position that US forces will stay there "until the job is done". The question is: Do Afghans agree with his definition of "the job"? The president defined it as "to provide Afghans themselves the capacity to secure their own country".

Altogether, President Obama's message was one of pragmatism and an expression of solidarity with the people of Iran and Afghanistan, but also an attempt to portray his deep concern with the nature of the obstacles - the ruling regime in Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan - facing his policies.

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