Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has accused Barack Obama of pursuing the same "wrong path" as George W Bush in supporting "the cancerous tumour" Israel. His invective, delivered at the start of a two-day conference in Tehran in aid of Gaza yesterday, was similar to the rhetoric more frequently used by Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which has done much to heighten international concern over Iran's cherished nuclear programme.
Ayatollah Khamenei's speech underscored the difficulties the new administration in Washington faces in trying to engage with the Islamic republic, given deep differences on such issues as Israel and Iran's nuclear ambitions. Ayatollah Khamenei spoke one day after Hillary Clinton, on her first trip to the Middle East since being appointed US secretary of state, expressed doubt that Tehran would respond positively to overtures from Washington to end three decades of enmity.
Ayatollah Khamenei said Mr Obama, the US president, had spoken of change during his campaign but supported Israel's devastating three-week offensive against Gaza recently in which 1,300 Palestinians, including hundreds of children, and 13 Israelis, were killed. "Even the new president of America, who came to power with slogans about changing Bush's policies, is defending state terrorism by talking about unconditional commitment to Israel's security," Ayatollah Khamenei said.
Mr Obama was not inaugurated as president until Jan 20, two days after the offensive ended. "The only way to save Palestine is resistance," Ayatollah Khamenei added as he issued a rallying cry to Muslims around the world to "join forces and break the immunity of the Zionist criminals". Any attempt to resolve the Palestinian issue through negotiations would be fruitless, he insisted. Mrs Clinton said on Tuesday and again yesterday that the United States will actively pursue a two-state solution and that the movement towards the creation of a Palestinian state was "inescapable".
Iran does not recognise Israel and Ayatollah Khamenei has repeatedly rejected a two-state solution to solve the Israel-Palestinian issue. From the other extreme, Israel's prime minister-designate, Benjamin Netanyahu, is also opposed to a two-state solution that would grant Palestinians their own state. Mrs Clinton's trip to the Middle East has highlighted the interlocking challenges and pressures the Obama administration faces in the region. As well as addressing the core Palestinian issue, Washington is trying to reach out to Tehran while keeping Israel on side. Israel has described Iran's nuclear ambitions as a threat to its existence and has not ruled out attacking Iran's nuclear sites by itself.
"Israel has long been very suspicious of Iran-US negotiations, fearing the US will betray Israel in any deal they might make with the Iranians," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, which promotes diplomacy to resolve disputes. "But it's a mistake to neglect the possibility a US-Iran dialogue could have for Israel, including the opportunity to change Iran's posture on Israel as a result of improved US-Iran ties," Mr Parsi, the author of Treacherous Alliance, a book on relations between the United States, Iran and Israel, said in an interview.
Israel has indicated that it will go along with Mr Obama's Iran diplomacy, but is expected to strive to shorten the deadline for results by signalling its willingness to attack Iranian nuclear sites if need be. Tehran, however, appears confident that Washington will restrain Israel for fear such any such military action would unleash more chaos in the Middle East. An Israeli attack would upset global oil markets, entangle the United States and its Gulf Arab allies, and pose drastic new challenges to US involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even so, a senior Iranian military commander boasted yesterday that Iran had missiles that could reach Israeli nuclear sites and that Tehran would respond firmly to any attack. "The doctrine of our system is defensive, but in the case of any action by enemies, including the Zionist regime, we will respond firmly using missiles and deter attacks," Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander-in-chief of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, declared.
Israeli leaders have drafted a set of "red lines" they want Washington to follow in any dialogue with Tehran, according to Haaretz, an Israeli daily newspaper. Those requirements were to be presented to Mrs Clinton on Tuesday when she met Israeli officials in Jerusalem, where she reassured her hosts that US diplomacy should not be confused with softness and that Washington's support of Israel was "unshakeable".
The United States remains committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and funding terrorism, she said. The Israeli "red lines" were jointly crafted by Israel's foreign ministry and defence establishment while Mr Netanyahu was briefed on them, Haaretz said. The document recommends that Israel adopt a positive attitude to the planned US-Iranian dialogue, but proposes ways of minimising what Israeli officials see as the inherent risks in such talks, Haaretz said.
The first Israeli stipulation is that any Iran-US dialogue must be accompanied by tougher UN sanctions against the Islamic republic, both within and outside the framework of the UN Security Council. Otherwise, talks were likely to be viewed by Tehran and the international community as acceptance of Iran's nuclear programme - which the Islamic republic insists is solely peaceful in nature. Secondly, the United States must draft an action plan together with the four other permanent members of the UN Security Council - Russia, China, Britain and France - to slap "extremely harsh sanctions" on Iran if talks fail. The negotiations should be defined as a "one-time opportunity" for Tehran and must have a time limit to "prevent Iran from merely buying time to complete its nuclear development".
Lastly, Mrs Clinton would be pressed to divulge precisely what role Dennis Ross, her newly appointed adviser on the Gulf and south-west Asia (code words for Iran) would play. His vague job description, which does not mention Iran by name, has concerned Israeli commentators. "It is widely expected that Ross will focus on the Iranian nuclear issue, but this has not been stated officially," Haaretz said.
Israel, the Middle East's only nuclear-armed state, clearly would like that to be Mr Ross's main concern. A long-time hawk on Iran, which has branded him a "notorious Israel-firster", Mr Ross has consistently recommended mobilising world opinion in favour of very tough additional international sanctions to precede and accompany any diplomatic opening with Iran: a position largely consonant with the "red lines" reported by Haaretz.
It remains to be seen whether such positions eventually will be adopted by the Obama administration, which is currently conducting a high-level policy review on Iran and has promised genuine change in the Tehran-Washington relationship. If those positions are incorporated into new US policy, however, they would ensure the prompt failure of any efforts to draw Tehran into a negotiating process, Iran experts say.
Mr Ahmadinejad, who originally appeared pleased with Mr Obama's election, has had difficulty since in tempering his rhetoric to seize what many ordinary Iranians view as a welcome opportunity to mend fences with the United States. Addressing the Obama administration yesterday, the Iranian president said: "Change means giving up your satanic, coercive and aggressive ways and instead adopting more human morals if you accept this invitation, it will be to the benefit of yourself and your nation."