March 24, 2009

NIAC Memo: Did Tehran Really Rebuff Obama?

Washington, DC – Some western reports have characterized Ayatollah Khamenei’s response to President Obama’s Norooz message as a rebuff, but a closer reading suggest otherwise.

President Barack Obama’s remarkable Norooz message initiated a much needed direct conversation between two countries long at odds and used to interaction through intermediaries.

The response by Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in turn, reflected Tehran’s openness to improved relations if Washington changes its approach. It also showed that Iran’s leadership is quite attuned to recent policy debates in the U.S. about how to go about talking to Iran.

President Obama message was remarkable for several reasons. First, unlike his predecessor, he did not attempt to drive a wedge between the people and government of Iran. He spoke explicitly to the “people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” acknowledging their common history and culture. No more ‘we love the people of Iran but hate their government’ taunt repeatedly brandished by the Bush Administration.

Second, he did not try to drive a wedge between different political factions in Iran. By addressing all, he put to rest all the diversionary chatter about who his administration should talk to. His focus was not on which Iranians the US wishes to – “moderates” or “pragmatists” – or should talk to – ones who “really” wield power – but the fact that the two countries should talk on matters of mutual interest and about their differences.

Third, avoiding demonizing rhetoric and peremptory demands, he stated his commitment to a diplomatic process that “will not be advanced by threats.” This is the closest anyone in the US has come to ruling out the military option.

Finally, going beyond Washington’s fetish over Iran’s nuclear program, he stated his interest in addressing “full range of issues” and “constructive ties” between the two countries.

President Obama did not ignore serious differences that have grown over time. Furthermore, the section of his speech conditioning Iran’s “rightful place in the community of nations” on its responsibility to abandon “terror and arms” and pursuit of “peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization” was patronizing if not insulting. However, the general tenor of the speech was so different from what Tehran is used to hearing that it drew an immediate response from Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

Some western reports have characterized Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech in Mashhad as a rebuff. A close reading of the entire speech suggests anything but a rebuff.

To be sure, in this calmly delivered and mostly jargon-free response, there is the usual highlighting of the harm continued US policies – including sanctions, freezing of assets, and support for opposition and secessionist groups and Baluchi insurgents – has intended. But US actions are mentioned as reasons why mere conciliatory speeches cannot be considered real change in American policy.

More significantly, they are mentioned in order to explain why the continuation of these hostile policies has to make Iran wonder about President Obama’s intent:

“They say come and talk, come and establish relations, they change slogans. Well, where is this change? Clarify this for us; what has changed? Have you unfrozen the assets of the Iranian people; have you lifted the oppressive sanctions? We do not have any experience with the new American government and president; we will look and judge. You change, and we will also change our behavior too.”

Ayatollah Khamenei also makes a clever play on the usual way the American policy community talks about Iran, turning it against US and saying “I don’t know who really makes policy in the US – the president, Congress or behind the scene elements.” But no matter who makes decisions in the US, Iran makes decision “rationally and not based on emotions.”

The bottom line is: “Our nation dislikes it when you again proclaim ‘talks with pressure’; we talk to Iran while we pressure them as well – threat and inducement. You cannot talk to our nation this way.”

Some may interpret Khamenei’s message as yet another enumeration of demands or grievances by Tehran. But it should be seen more as a reflection of how attuned Tehran is to debates in Washington. There are no calls for U.S. apology for past actions. The focus is on today. No doubt Tehran wants sanctions to be lifted, assets unfrozen, and attempts to undermine the Iranian government ended at some point as a result of talks with the U.S.

But Ayatollah Khamenei’s concern now is the argument forwarded by powerful circles in Washington that negotiations with Iran should be combined with increased pressure to make sure that Iran will give in at the end. It is this type of what he calls “condescending language, arrogant approach, and patronizing moves” that he rejects.

Clearly from his view, engagement in talks must be accompanied with some concrete steps that show Iran that the United States is interested in a process and give and take and not a process based on “either deception or intimidation.” Deception because the objective remains the same while the softer language is a mere tactical change; intimidation because talks are combined with further squeeze of Iran.

He leaves no doubt that additional pressure on Iran leading up to talks and during the talks will be seen as a sign that President Obama’s rhetoric of change is a farce. As such Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech should not be seen as a rebuff but as a carefully calibrated attempt to shape the debate in Washington on how to go about talking to Iran.

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty of Political Science at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.




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