The NowrÅ«z Message
Yesterday was NowrÅ«z, the Iranian New Year’s, a spring holiday whose celebration by Iranian peoples goes back more than 2,500 years. President Obama sent a televised message to the Iranians in recognition of the day:
There’s nothing particularly revolutionary or even novel about that. President Bush made a couple of NowrÅ«z messages. Certainly, the tone of President Obama’s message was somewhat different than those of President Bush, whose messages were either intended for an Iranian-American audience or a stab at dividing the people of Iran from the Iranian government.
I didn’t mention President Obama’s message yesterday because I wanted to wait for the other shoe to drop. Now it has and so I will. Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran and the most powerful individual in the country, has responded to the message:
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s supreme leader rebuffed President Barack Obama’s latest outreach on Saturday, saying Tehran was still waiting to see concrete changes in U.S. policy.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was responding to a video message Obama released Friday in which he reached out to Iran on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian new year, and expressed hopes for an improvement in nearly 30 years of strained relations.
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.
In his most direct assessment of Obama and prospects for better ties, Khamenei said there will be no change between the two countries unless the American president puts an end to U.S. hostility toward Iran and brings ”real changes” in foreign policy.
”They chant the slogan of change but no change is seen in practice. We haven’t seen any change,” Khamenei said in a speech before a crowd of tens of thousands in the northeastern holy city of Mashhad.
In his video message, Obama said the United States wants to engage Iran, but he also warned that a right place for Iran in the international community ”cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization.”
Khamenei asked how Obama could congratulate Iranians on the new year and accuse the country of supporting terrorism and seeking nuclear weapons in the same message.
The full text of President Obama’s speech is here. He doesn’t mention nuclear weapons; The Supreme Leader’s remarks are a non sequitur as far as President Obama’s message is concerned.
I’m in favor of negotiating with Iran but if the Obama Administration is under the misapprehension that we don’t have active ongoing formal negotiations with the Iranian government because of the recalcitrance of the Bush Administration they are seriously mistaken. Every American administration since the revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979 has done or attempted some back channel negotiations with Iran. That includes the George W. Bush Administration. Occasionally, the Iranians have opened some back channel negotiations with us. Occasionally, our overtures have been rebuffed by the Iranians.
The reason that we don’t have ongoing formal negotiations with the Iranian government is that it’s difficult. As an illustration of how difficult it is, when President Obama announced his willingness to begin negotiating with the Iranian government without preconditions, they responded with a list of their preconditions.
This latest incident in which President Obama extends an olive branch which the Iranian leader shoves back is yet another instance. And that he would bring up a list of old scores as preconditions for talks is shrewd bargaining. Why negotiate when you can get what you want as a condition for coming to the negotiating table?
Iran continues to play a weak hand well while we play a strong hand badly. If we’re going to achieve results that are mutually acceptable through negotiations with Iran, we’re going to need to be much cannier negotiators with Iran than we have been.