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Turning 'sworn enemies' into 'durable friends': a message to Iran?

"Enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war," President Obama said in his inaugural speech--a line that some listeners heard as a direct r

"Enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war," President Obama said in his inaugural speech--a line that some listeners heard as a direct rebuke to neoconservatives. “We are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends, and we must carry those lessons into this time as well.” He also said “engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”

Hardball host Chris Matthews said on Tuesday that he believed Obama was talking directly to Iran. “I had a sense, as a political observer, that the president was talking to Tehran, to the Mullahs, to the people over there that have the power, saying ‘look maybe we can avoid a war, maybe we can avoid a bombing campaign by us or Israel if we can walk away from the this weaponization of nuclear arms over there.’”

It’s been a turbulent few years for U.S-Iranian relations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a dramatic speech in the fall in which he begged the international community to draw a “clear red line” over Iran’s nuclear program. He claimed Iran would have enough enriched uranium to make a bomb by next summer. Obama has wanted to hold off on Israeli military action, but said America would “do what we must” to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon.

Steve Clemons, the Washington editor-at-large at The Atlantic agreed with Matthews, saying he believes Obama was trying to reach out to Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during his speech. “Obama and these sanctions they’ve imposed are squeezing Iran, collapsed the oil export part of the economy of Iran, and the Iranian currency is in freefall,” said Clemons. He said that while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has relaxed his “demonization of Obama” in his  speeches, we still don’t know much about Khamenei. Obama’s inauguration remarks were “ meant to reach him specifically,” said Clemons, adding that there could be bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and Iran in the near future.

But NBC News’ Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel argued Obama wasn’t trying to single out Iran during his speech. “I think he was talking to a lot of different audiences,” said Engel.  “He was saying that ‘I’m different than the previous administration. I’m not President Bush.’ A lot of people around the world still remember the United States--even though there’s been four years of a Barack Obama presidency--for the wars in Iraq and the wars in Afghanistan and military interventions and the drone policy, and he was trying to say we can work peacefully.

Engel surmised the message would be received by some Iranians. However, he also said it might be seen as a “trick.” “This administration has been very tough on Iran, particularly as far as sanctions as concerned,” said Engel.

More on foreign policy: Obama will face both crises and opportunities abroad--but first America needs to get its own house in order.