Monday, March 23, 2009

A reply from Tehran

On Thursday, in a 3-1/2-minute video message, President Obama extended an olive branch to the Islamic Republic of Iran, and did so on Nowruz, one of Iran’s most revered secular holidays. Iran sent a reply on Saturday, seemingly as harsh and angry as rhetoric from the Iranian leadership has been in the past. Seemingly.

The conventional wisdom would have us believe that the vitriol of Tehran’s response to Obama’s call for “a new beginning” was not what the White House was hoping for. Upon further review, there’s a better chance that the response was exactly what the White House expected. And there’s something to build on, maybe.

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Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the real powerhouse animating the core of Iran’s fervently anti-American leadership — not President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — spoke at the shrine of Imam Reza, at a rally in the northeastern holy city of Mashhad, with the authority of the spiritual leader of a republic that, for all the Westernist tendencies of its people in recent decades, remains a leadership by theocracy. “Khamenei holds the last word on major policy decisions, and how Iran ultimately responds to any concrete U.S. effort to engage the country will depend largely on his say,” reported Ali Akbar Dareini of The Associated Press.

So Khamenei spoke his own truth to televised power on Saturday, responding to Obama’s video in a live television broadcast with a frank, show-me-the-money response to the president of the United States.

“They chant the slogan of change but no change is seen in practice. We haven't seen any change,” he said.

“He (Obama) insulted the Islamic Republic of Iran from the first day. If you are right that change has come, where is that change? What is the sign of that change? Make it clear for us what has changed. …” It was a series of broadsides that alluded to the great split occasioned by the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the taking of American hostages in a crisis that crippled the Carter presidency and set the stage for U.S.-Iranian relations ever since.

“Have you released Iranian assets? Have you lifted oppressive sanctions? Have you given up mudslinging and making accusations against the great Iranian nation and its officials? Have you given up your unconditional support for the Zionist regime? Even the language remains unchanged. …”

“They say we have stretched a hand toward Iran. ... If a hand is extended covered with a velvet glove but it is cast iron inside, that makes no sense," Khamenei said.

“They are talking of extending a hand to Iran on the occasion of the New Year and they are congratulating the Iranian people,” he said. “At the same time, they are accusing [Iran] of terrorism and the manufacturing of nuclear weapons.”

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But for all the heat of Khamenei’s response, the door to a better relationship was open, at least a hair of a crack.

"We do not have any record of the new U.S. president," Khamenei said. “We are observing, watching and judging. If you change, we will also change our behavior. If you do not change, we will be the same nation as 30 years ago.”

For some students of Iranian culture and politics, there’s reason for optimism. What looks like a straight-up rebuff ain’t necessarily so.

Dr. Shireen Hunter, director of the Islam Program at CSIS, told ABC News on Saturday: "Actually, for the first time, Ayatollah Khamenei seemed to accept the principle of reciprocity."

“It seemed like a snub, but then again, context matters,” observes Nathan Gonzalez, author of “Engaging Iran,” writing in The Huffington Post.
“There is a very important reason for Iran's reluctance to change its tone overnight. It is due to a political trend I call the ‘cult of anti-Americanism.’ This is Iran's anti-American brand, one that has been the face of the country since the 1978-1979 revolution toppled the U.S.-backed king. …

Eventually, the cult of anti-Americanism will fade and a new generation of leaders will take the reins of power. In the meantime, the name-calling will continue, even as the United States and Iran work together constructively on the future of Iraq and Afghanistan. For the Islamic Republic, the only country in the Middle East that is truly independent today, being the ‘angry Islamist’ on the bloc is a small price to pay.

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It might all come down to domestic political consumption — how it plays at home, the populist political commonality shared by Tehran and Washington. Something to build on. Khamenei’s apparently hardline attitude may well belie something more practical, if not actually conciliatory, as the new administration in Washington solidifies its bona fides with the world.

The metaphor of “the ball in their court” is often used (and overused) to describe the need of a contestant in any given conflict, from a tennis match to a test of wills between world leaders, to make the next move.

With a new leader facing profound economic challenges and a nation eager for results in Washington, and a young population of citizens eager for the future in Tehran, we’re witnessing a contest with balls in both courts at the same time. At least — 30 years after the great schism between Iran and the United States —they’re getting back in the game of diplomacy.
Image credit: Ayatollah Khamenei: Khamenei Web site.

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