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Wednesday, February 10, 2016
- Since Barack Obama became president of the United States, messages marking the Iranian New Year – Norouz – celebrated at the onset of spring have become yearly affairs. So have responses given by Iran’s Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei from the city of Mashhad where he makes a yearly pilgrimage to visit the shrine of Shi’i Islam’s eighth imam, Imam Reza.
This year, like the first year of Obama’s presidency, the two leaders’ public messages had added significance because of the positive signals broadcast by both sides after Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany met in Almaty, Kazakhstan in March. The second meeting is slotted to occur Apr. 6.
Considering that the exchanged messages came in the midst of ongoing talks, a degree of softened language and the abandonment of threats was expected. In his first Norouz speech in 2009, when both sides were getting ready to embark on serious talks, Obama had said that his administration was committed to diplomacy and a process that “will not be advanced by threats” and is “honest and grounded in mutual respect”.
This time, however, his message was laced with threats and promises of rewards if Iranian leaders behaved well, eliciting Khamenei’s disdainful response, and revealing yet again how intractable – and dangerous – the conflict between Iran and the United States has become.
The dueling exchanges also revealed the rhetorical game both sides are playing for the hearts and minds of the Iranian people, who are caught in the crossfire of policies in which they have very little input despite the very serious impact these policies have had on their economic well-being.
Reciting Persian poetry and touting the greatness of Iran’s civilisation and culture, President Obama once again suggested that the United States is ready to reach a solution that gives “Iran access to peaceful nuclear energy while resolving once and for all the serious questions that the world has about the true nature of the Iranian nuclear programme.”
But this general offer – which remained unclear on the key question of whether the United States is willing to formally recognise Iran’s right to enrich uranium on its soil – was also framed within an explicit threat that if the “Iranian government continues down its current path, it will further isolate Iran.”
In other words, the Iranian leaders can choose “a better path” which Obama insisted was for the sake of the Iranian people for whom there is no good reason “to be denied the opportunities enjoyed by people in other countries, just as Iranians deserve the same freedoms and rights as people everywhere.”
Although Iran’s isolation was acknowledged, President Obama’s words were carefully chosen not to mention the fact that it is the United States that has endeavored to impose a ferocious sanctions regime on Iran which, in his words, “deny opportunity enjoyed by people of other countries.”
In the Norouz greeting that came after a tough year of hardship, highlighted by a 40-percent drop in Iran’s oil exports, Obama’s implicit message was that the Iranian people should not blame the United States as the source of their economic difficulties but rather their own government’s choice in refusing the demands of the “international community”.
Viewed through the eyes of the Iranian leadership, the aggressiveness of such a posture was obvious, particularly since two days later, standing next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, the U.S. president set aside his soft language and once again reiterated that as far as Iran is concerned “all options are on the table.”
In other words, if the Iranian leaders do not abandon their current path, the people of Iran will not only continue to be collectively punished through broad-based sanctions and denial of opportunities, they may also be subject to military attacks.
Not surprisingly, the response from Ayatollah Khamenei was calibrated to counter President Obama’s threats hidden in the language of respect for Iranian culture and people. Khamenei also showed his conciliatory side by stating that he does not oppose even bilateral talks with the United States, but added the caveat that he is not optimistic about their results. Why?
“Because our past experiences show that in the logic of the American gentlemen, negotiation does not mean sitting down together to try to reach a rational solution,” Khamenei said. “This is not what they mean by negotiation. What they mean is that we should sit down together and talk so that Iran accepts their views. The goal has been announced in advance: Iran must accept their view.”
Highlighting a clear disconnect between what Obama says to different audiences, Ayatollah Khamenei went to the heart of the problem President Obama has in convincing the Iranian people that he has their interest in mind when talking to them. Khamenei reminded his Iranian audience that “in his official addresses, the American president speaks about Iran’s economic problems as if he is speaking about his victories.”
He pointed to the announced intent of sanctions to “cripple” Iran by “the incompetent lady who was responsible for America’s foreign policy”, an apparent reference to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
Khamenei’s response also singled out the United States as Iran’s number one enemy and “main centre of conspiracies against the Iranian nation”. He did acknowledge the help the U.S. gets from other Western countries and Israel but dismissed the latter as “too small to be considered among the frontline enemies of the Iranian nation”.
Along the same lines, Khamenei was also dismissive of Obama’s claim to speak for the international community. “The international community is no way interested in enmity with Iranian or Islamic Iran,” Khamenei said.
Despite differences, however, Khamenei speech had one key point in common with Obama’s message. Both leaders were ready to heap praise on the Iranian people; one did so for their “great and celebrated culture” and the other for their resistance and “high capacity and power to turn threats into opportunities”.
Heaping praise, however, cannot hide the fact that the most likely victims of the conflict between the governments of the two countries are the ones that have no input in the decisions made in either country. Both speeches made clear that, caught in the rhetorical crossfire, the people of Iran are subjects to be wooed and courted but whose economic welfare is not of much concern.