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In Washington, Poetry Diplomacy With Iran

By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL

U.S. nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman and mausoleum of the Persian poet Saadi in Shiraz, Iran

In an October 23 keynote speech on the status of nuclear negotiations with Iran, U.S. chief nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman cited a verse by the great Persian poet Saadi.

“Have patience; all things are difficult before they become easy,” Sherman, U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs, said in remarks that came a month before the November 24 deadline for Iran and major world powers to reach a lasting nuclear deal.

The citation appeared to be an attempt by Sherman to reach out to Iranians by showing respect for their culture and love of poetry, an approach employed earlier by other U.S. officials as well, including the American leader.

U.S. President Barack Obama has recited Persian poetry in his efforts to engage Iran, as has State Department Persian language spokesman Alan Eyre, who frequently uses poetry in his media appearances and video messages to Iranians.

In his 2011 message for Nowruz, the Persian New Year, Obama recited a verse from Simin Behbahani, a poet known as “The Lady of Iran’s Ghazal” who passed away in August and repeatedly faced pressure from Iranian authorities.

“Old, I may be, but, given the chance, I will learn. I will begin a second youth alongside my progeny. I will recite the Hadith of love of country with such fervor as to make each word bear life,” Obama said in his citation of Behbahani.

Behbahani later told VOA’s Persian Service that she appreciated the gesture.

President Obama reading a poesy of Simin Behbahani and appreciation of the poet

For Obama’s 2013 Nowruz message, his speechwriters included a verse by the 14th century poet Hafez, whose book of poetry is part of almost every household in Iran.

“Plant the tree of friendship that bears the fruit of fulfillment; uproot the sapling of enmity that bears endless suffering," Obama said in the video message.

There have been few public acknowledgements of this poetry diplomacy from Iranian leaders, who have called on Washington to recognize “Iran’s rights to uranium enrichment” and give up its “hostile” policies.

As Sherman noted in her speech, despite progress in the nuclear negotiations, there is still a “forest of distrust” on both sides.

“Given what has happened in past decades, how could there not be? But I can affirm to you this afternoon that the United States will not accept any arrangement we can’t verify, and that we won’t make any promises we can’t keep. Just as we will demand good faith, so will we demonstrate good faith,” she said.

Sherman said the remaining time before next month’s deadline for a final nuclear deal should be used “wisely and with a sense of urgency and purpose.”

“We hope the leaders in Tehran will agree to the steps necessary to assure the world that this program will be exclusively peaceful and thereby end Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation and improve further the lives of their people,” she said. “If that does not happen, the responsibility will be seen by all to rest with Iran.”

Sherman warned that a failure of the talks could lead to an “escalation” on all sides.

That could also mean an end to poetry diplomacy.

Copyright (c) 2014 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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