Thursday, March 19, 2009

A hand to Tehran

It may be the source of robust argument for fifteen minutes at a D.C. cocktail party — historians and analysts and the leaders of the punditburo debating whether it was all a coincidence that, on Thursday, the sixth anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq, President Barack Obama extended an olive branch to the people of Iran on Nowruz, an ancient secular holiday that marks the start of the Iranian year, a holiday that often coincides with the first day of spring.

You could equally debate how much or how little this president has achieved after 59 days in office, but there’s no doubt Obama has been a master of the clock. Policy announcements, cabinet nominations, prison closings, he's done a lot in a very short time. And after a two-day swing through Southern California to reconnect with the everyday people who elected him, Obama took the world stage from a sound stage, and started the process of healing one of the most deeply wounded American relationships in the Middle East.

In the taped message recorded late Thursday (Friday in Iran), Obama offers “my very best wishes to all who are celebrating Nowruz around the world. This holiday is both an ancient ritual and a moment of renewal, and I hope that you enjoy this special time of year with friends and family.”

“Here in the United States our own communities have been enhanced by the contributions of Iranian Americans. We know that you are a great civilization, and your accomplishments have earned the respect of the United States and the world.

“For nearly three decades, relations between our nations have been strained. But at this holiday, we are reminded of the common humanity that binds us together. Indeed, you will be celebrating your New Year in much the same way that we Americans mark our holidays, by gathering with family and friends, exchanging gifts and stories, and looking to the future with a renewed sense of hope.”

It wasn’t all a let’s-have-a-Coke-together-on-a-hillside moment. Much of Obama’s taped address was toughlove directed at the Iranian leadership of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the source of a wide range of threats against Israel and the leader responsible for approving and evangelizing Tehran’s dalliance with nuclear technology — possibly for nonpeaceful purposes.

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“We have serious differences that have grown over time,” the president said. “My Administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran, and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek, instead, engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.

“You, too, have a choice. The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right, but it comes with real responsibilities. And that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization, and the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create.”

"I want you, the people and leaders of Iran, to understand the future that we seek," Obama concludes. "It is a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce. It is 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 ends the address with a Farsi saying, “Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak” — “have a celebratory new year.”

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It was his second dramatic telegenic bid at Middle Eastern outreach in as many months. On Jan. 26 he conducted his first formal one-on-one interview with a major news organization, but not one of the American networks. Obama huddled in the White House that day with Hisham Melhem of al-Arabiya, a Saudi-supported TV news channel based in Dubai.

Thursday’s message was another genuine Obama moment, the kind of genial throwdown he’s good at — not a dare but a challenge. In language and tone more conciliatory than we’ve heard from Washington toward Tehran in years, the Obama administration is turning the page on eight years of the bellicose cowboy rhetoric of the Bush administration.

Naysayers will say it was showy and over-the-top; the hard right wing will probably call it appeasement; and the Iranian leadership the message was aimed at may well think it’s just geopolitical pandering. But the fact of the message itself breaks new ground in relations between Washington and Tehran. The theocracy in Iran may react with the usual reflexes, but on the street, Obama’s message — bold by being nothing more than solicitous, accessible, human — is an open hand to Tehran, and a gesture that Tehran's leaders will find difficult not to reciprocate.

He hasn't attained the high stature of our best, most celebrated statesmen-presidents. Not yet. But 59 days in, President Obama is demonstrating a command of that primary gift of the best statesmen: an understanding of how the mutuality of cultures and the power of language are nothing less than the mothers of all weapons, and ultimately more effective than conventional weapons.

On Thursday night, the grim anniversary of another kind of war, President Obama fired a salvo of possibility — at least — at the Islamic Republic of Iran. The next move belongs to Tehran.
Image credit: Obama: Still from video. Obama and Melhem: Al-Arabiya via The Associated Press.

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