(Inter Press Service)
In an unprecedented move, President Barack Obama reached out to both the people and the government of Iran—a leading U.S. adversary—to wish them well in their Norouz, or New Year, holidays, last Friday.
The move stands in sharp contrast to the rhetoric of former U.S. President George W. Bush, who labeled Iran as part of an "Axis of Evil," and other Western and Mideast leaders who take a hard line against the Iranian government.
"[O]n the occasion of your New Year," Obama said in a video released on the official White House website, "I want you, the people and leaders of Iran, to understand the future that we seek."
"It’s a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce," he said. "It’s a future where the old divisions are overcome, where you and all of your neighbors and the wider world can live in greater security and greater peace."
Obama may have also tacitly recognized that Iran has a major role to play in the region and in the larger international community.
"The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations," he said.
The "old divisions" Obama referred to are the three decades of ebbing and flowing—but lately, mostly flowing—tensions between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic since the 1979 Revolution that removed the U.S.-backed Shah from power.
An official review of U.S. policy ordered by the administration is due to be completed next week. The review is reportedly being chaired by the State Department’s special advisor for the Gulf and Southwest Asia, Dennis Ross, and William Burns, the under-secretary of state for political affairs.
Ross’ appointment was seen as controversial, and, unlike other major advisory and envoy rolls, announced in a simple press release without much pomp and circumstance. His title also does not mention Iran by name, though he is widely seen as a top advisor for setting Iran policy.
The nuclear issue is seen as the most contentious in dealing with the Islamic Republic. Despite Iran’s insistence that its program is meant for civilian energy—as the December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a consensus opinion of the 16 intelligence agencies in the U.S., concluded—hardliners and hawks in the U.S. and their allies in Israel insist that the goal is nuclear weapons.
But while those hawks and hard-liners have at times over the past decade pushed for military action against Iran, Obama was weary of such a tack during his Norouz message.
"This process will not be advanced by threats," said Obama.
"This is the closest anyone has come to ruling out the military option regarding Iran," wrote University of Hawaii professor and Iran expert Farideh Farhi on the Informed Comment: Global Affairs blog. "His commitment was clearly to ‘diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues’ as well as ‘constructive ties’ between the two countries."
Obama campaigned largely on a new brand of foreign policy based on diplomacy rather than force and the threat of force, particularly towards nations with hostility to the U.S., like Iran. Since he took office, he has reiterated this pledge, but never so directly to all Iranians—including the government and leadership of Iran—as in his Friday Norouz message.
In contrast to Obama’s message to Iranians of all stripes and positions, Israeli President Shimon Peres released a statement that sounded more like Bush, who was prone to bellicose rhetoric towards the government of Iran, though he sometimes spoke directly to the country’s people in a bid to distance them from their leaders.
"I think the Iranian nation will topple these leaders—leaders that do not serve the people," said Peres, calling the heads of Iranian government "religious fanatics."
Obama, on the other hand, took a savvy line by appealing to a common Iranian cultural love of poetry: "There are those who insist that we be defined by our differences. But let us remember the words that were written by the poet Saadi, so many years ago: ‘The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence.’"
Farhi lauded the distinction: "No more ‘we love the people of Iran but hate their government’ taunt repeatedly brandished by the Bush administration."
In Congress, Senate Foreign Relations committee chairman John Kerry, however, adopted some of Peres’ and Bush’s talk of driving a wedge between Iranians and their government.
"The regime in Tehran faces rising discontent from its own people," said Kerry, saying that Obama’s message offered the "regime a real choice" between a "path of real change" and "confrontation."
But Obama, notably, never used the word regime in his address, even referring to the Islamic Republic, the moniker the country took after the ousting of the Shah.
"This is huge," Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), told Laura Rozen’s The Cable blog on the Foreign Policy magazine website. "At one point he talks about the Islamic Republic. He’s signaling he’s not looking for regime change; he’s recognizing Iran’s system."
"You always heard [former Bush Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice and Bush say ‘Iranian regime,’" said Parsi. "It’s a big difference."
In addition to the full video, released today, the White House website also carried transcripts of the message in English and Farsi, and a version of the video with Farsi subtitles.
At the end of his video address, however, there was no need for a translation. Obama spoke in Farsi, telling all Iranians "Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak," meaning, “Happy holidays to you.”
Ali Gharib writes for the Inter Press Service and for PRA’s Right Web (www.rightweb.irc-online.org).
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