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Europe listens cautiously to Obama agenda

Biden opens a door on Iran, but presses allies on Afghanistan.

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A certain "Obama factor" was behind much of the reaction here. "If someone from the Bush team told us this, we would immediately disagree," said Jochen Bittner, a columnist for Germany's Die Zeit newspaper, "it would be rejected. But this is different. We have to listen."

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John Kornblum, businessman and the former US ambassador to Germany, says the Munich summit is about "a righting of relations with Europe." The US delegation, he says, "said all the right things. I wouldn't underestimate how beaten up the Europeans have felt, diplomatically."

The Munich summit has been convened annually since the 1970s, when most of the discussion centered on arms control. In recent years, the forum has highlighted political tensions, as in 2003 when German foreign minister Joschka Fischer and US defense chief Donald Rumsfeld clashed over whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. In 2007, Russia's Vladimir Putin outlined a new, more assertive position on Russia's neighbors, and vehemently opposed NATO expansion. Last year, the US delegation walked out during a talk by Iranian head of parliament Ali Larijani.

This year, Mr. Larijani spoke without a walkout – though he was conspicuously absent during Biden's speech. While Larijani detailed years of Iranian grievances: a double-standard on nuclear accession by the West, and the travails of the people of Gaza in the recent war there – considered a requirement for a domestic audience in Iran – his speech was also studded with clear openings to the new American administration, saying that it was time to "build bridges."

Robert Hunter, former US ambassador to NATO, pointed out that the delegation from Tehran was far larger than expected and that the Europeans were finding "some enthusiasm in Larijani's statements, like the one that there is a 'golden opportunity for the United States' at this moment."

Regarding Russia, Biden affirmed an effort to take up the Start 2 arms-control talks that expire this year. He said it is "time to press the reset button" on Russia-US relations," but added that the Obama team would not agree with Russia on everything and "will not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states." The two regions of Georgia were recognized by Moscow after the war in Georgia last summer, and Moscow is said to be eyeing Abkhazia as a warm-water port.

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