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03/24/09

Obama's Norooz Prelude

By Rasool Nafisi

 

The Event
 

This Iranian New Year (Norooz) was the occasion for a message from President Obama in which he clearly emphasized diplomacy without reverting to the "all options are on the table" trope. He called Iran back to the community of nations by urging Iranian leadership to cease their support for terrorism, and their pursuit of the bomb. Ayatollah Khamenei himself responded to the message. He did not like the admonitions about terrorism and nuclear weapons.

It was not a good time to mention nukes and terrorists considering that the Iranian Norooz is a time for happiness and good will. But had President Obama nixed the tough talk he would have risked causing discomfort among the members of the Sunni Arab block who are gradually forming an alliance against Iran; and the Israelis would have been none too pleased.

For the most part, the world community responded positively to President Obama's address.

Analysis

1. President Obama showed as much flexibility as he could at this point. He somewhat overrode his Secretary of State who often reiterates the threadbare mantra of "all the options including the military are on the table."

2. By directly addressing the Iranian people and leadership, President Obama deviated from the old ways of addressing the Iranian nation, and threatening their leaders. This directness may have signaled the end of regime change policy.

3. The president however did not mention "democracy" even once (nor has Secretary Clinton emphasized democratization as she does not see it as a priority for U.S. foreign policy). This shift in policy is an abrupt departure from the Bush administration, whose messianic democracy building exercise in Iraq is still winding down. The contrasting approaches demonstrate the tempestuous nature of American democracy, vacillating between the extremes. It should come as no surprise that many observers are questioning America's qualifications for leading the world.

4. It is understandable why the administration does not emphasize "democracy," a term so unabashedly abused by the previous president. The risk, however, is that the new de-emphasis could alienate those nations who still look up to the US for leadership, and a helping hand in transitioning to democracy.

5. Unprecedentedly Ayatollah Khamenei took it to himself to respond to the President's Norooz overture (he usually prefers proxies). There are two potential reasons for the personal response: He is either signaling a new direct leadership role in the Iranian foreign policy, or he is sending a message by this gesture, and the medium is the message: for the first time there is a dialogue between the top leaders of the two nations, no matter how dismissive and bitter the content.

6. A sentence in Ayatollah Khamenei's message merits more attention: "We don't know the background of this new administration; we will look, and [then] we will judge. You change and we change." The second part of this statement is often cited, but the first part which indeed is more important is omitted. Ayatollah Khamenei is saying clearly that Iran will start afresh, without prejudice, and will evaluate the policy of the US according to its actions rather than its rhetoric (which he found offensive).

7. The Ayatollah's message struck a patronizing and pedantic tone, particularly when he asks President Obama to have a non-Zionist translate the speech for him, the central theme of which is non-interference. Going forward it is worth remembering Khamenei's prideful tone which evinces a leader who feels himself to be holding many if not all of the bargaining chips.

8. Curiously, Khamenei twice claimed not to know who is making the decisions in Washington; Obama, the Congress, or the "elements behind the scenes." If not rhetorical, this statement shows that he doesn't fathom the complications of decision making in a democracy. Ayatollah Khamenei's statement is somewhat similar to the late Shah's disparaging comments about American democracy, and what he deemed as "anarchy" in America.

Policy Implications

The Ayatollah's message demonstrates that thirty years of discord will not go away in a few months. But the dialogue has begun, although on a rough note. The US should face reality, and express it honestly: There is no likelihood of using force against Iran, and as such, it is clever to follow the President's tone and drop the "military option" from the bilateral diplomatic dictionary (whether or not Israel will engage Iran militarily is a different matter).

It is also noteworthy that Iran's policies would have remained substantively unchanged no matter what the message from Washington. Iran will not rush to an understanding with the US because Iranian leadership perceives itself the winner of the wars in the region, and rightly so, thanks to the neocon cabal. Iran is not looking to cooperate with the US to share the region's supremacy, because it does not trust the West. Iran is already looking East for allies, particularly China and Russia. This is much more dangerous for the Western interests than the Natanz centrifuges.

Lastly, no matter how well President Obama's message received in Tehran, the US's new approach was applauded by many countries, although the Arab governments seem to be less enthusiastic.

About the author: Rasool Nafisi teaches the sociology of development at Strayer University in Virginia. He contributes to various news agencies, including the Voice of America, BBC, and Radio France International. His website is here

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