Did Iran Reject Obama’s Overture?

Iran’s response to a supposedly conciliatory address March 20 by U.S. President Barack Obama has been met with a torrent of “we-told-you-sos” by the U.S. media.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had simply “dismissed President Obama’s extraordinary Persian New Year greeting. . . .”

The Christian Science Monitor said the president’s gesture had been “greeted coolly” by Khamenei.

And an Associated Press report carried by, among others, the New York Times, called Khamenei’s response a “rebuff” that “was swift and sweeping.”

Was it?

President Obama used the occasion of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, to issue a message to both the Iranian people and its government that was noteworthy both for its tone and much of its substance.  Implicitly rejecting the arrogant bellicosity of the Cheney-Bush years, the president stressed that his 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.”

Specifically, Obama reiterated his already stated preference for diplomacy over the threat of military force.  “This process [pursuing constructive ties] will not be advanced by threats,” he said.  “We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.”

President Obama’s remarks were considered highly unusual for several reasons.  First, instead of attempting, like President George W. Bush before him, to go over the heads of Iran’s government and talk “directly” to the Iranian people, Obama pointedly directed his remarks to both the Iranian people and their government.  And he referred to the country by its official name, the Islamic Republic of Iran, implicitly recognizing the legitimacy of that government.  And he stated that the U.S. wants Iran “to take its rightful place in the community of nations,” acknowledging that “You have that right. . . .”

So why was Iran’s response so negative?

Well, first of all, it wasn’t.

The office of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was among the first to respond to Obama’s “overture.”

In a statement to Press TV, Iran’s English-language television channel, presidential aide Ali-Akbar Javanfekr said, “If Mr. Obama takes concrete action and makes fundamental changes in U.S. foreign policy towards other nations, including Iran, the Iranian government and people won’t turn their back on him.”

As reported by the Iranian Fars News Agency, Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki commented on Obama’s address, saying that “We are glad that Nowruz has been a source for friendship and we are pleased that Nowruz message is a message for coexistence, peace and friendship for the whole world.”

Press TV itself reported on President Obama’s address in a March 20 online article titled “Obama Scores Points with Iran Message,” noting that “his remarks, a significant departure from the tone of the previous administration, were well-received around the globe.”  The news channel also carried a link to Obama’s address.

The U.S. media generally focused on the response by Iran’s Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is not only the country’s top religious leader but also its military commander-in-chief.

Addressing a large crowd on March 22 in his hometown of Mashhad in northeastern Iran, the ayatollah touched on Obama’s remarks, noting that “Of course, we have no prior experience of the new president of the American republic and of the government, and therefore we shall make our judgment based on his actions.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but neither was it a cold rebuff or dismissal.

Khamenei went on to list some of the major Iranian complaints against the U.S., including 30 years of sanctions that include the seizure of important Iranian assets; supporting Saddam Hussein in his 1980 invasion of Iran, an act of aggression that led to an eight-year war and “300,000 Iranian martyrs;” the U.S. government’s continuing unconditional support for Israel; the loss of nearly 300 civilian lives in the 1988 downing of an Iranian airbus by the USS Vincennes warship, an air disaster the U.S called an accident but one for which it has never apologized; and alleged U.S. support for anti-Iranian terrorist attacks along the Iran-Pakistan border.

“Could the Iranian nation forget these tragedies?” Khamenei asked his audience.

The Fars agency reported that “Ayatollah Khamenei noted that the American new government says that it has stretched its hands towards Iran, and we say if cast-iron hands have been hidden under a velvety glove, so this move would be in vain.”

Then, according to Fars, came the nub of the Iranian response: “Pointing to the America’s message over the new Iranian year, Ayatollah Khamenei said they even had accused Iran of supporting terror and seeking nuclear weapons.  He asked if it [Obama’s Nowruz greeting] is a congratulation or continuation of the same accusations.”

Good point.  In his address, President Obama wrapped this chestnut in the soothing message of conciliation: “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” (emphasis mine).

So President Obama, like Bush before him, is still accusing Iran of promoting terrorism and relying on “arms,” an obvious reference to charges that Iran is attempting to develop nuclear weapons, charges Iran has repeatedly rejected.

As the ayatollah asked, was Obama’s Nowruz greeting “a congratulation or continuation of the same accusations”?

And is it unreasonable to declare, as Khamenei did in his speech in Mashhad, that Iran will evaluate the Obama administration based on its actions?

Some of those actions are already clear.

Earlier in March, President Obama formally extended by one year a set of unilateral sanctions against Iran that were first imposed in 1995 by President Bill Clinton.  Not exactly a confidence-building measure for the Iranians.

But not a departure from Obama policy, either.  In his Senate confirmation hearing, then-Treasury Secretary-designate Timothy Geithner came out strongly in favor of the Bush policy of increasingly repressive sanctions against Iran.

“I agree wholeheartedly that the Department of the Treasury has done outstanding work in ratcheting up the pressure on Iran,” Geithner told members of the Senate Finance Committee, “both by vigorously enforcing our sanctions against Iran and by sharing information with key financial actors around the world about how Iran’s deceptive conduct poses a threat to the integrity of the financial system.”

Interesting.  So it was Iran whose actions were threatening the financial system — not AIG, Citicorp, or Bernard Madoff.

“If confirmed as secretary of the Treasury,” Geithner continued, “I would consider the full range of tools available to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, including unilateral measures, to prevent Iran from misusing the financial system to engage in proliferation and terrorism.”

Then there’s Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton.  During her run for the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton felt it necessary to say she would “obliterate” Iran if it were to attack Israel.

During his campaign, Obama himself repeatedly stated that, in dealing with Iran, military force would always be an option.

Further, Obama’s point man on Iran at the State Department is Dennis Ross, a longtime supporter of Israel who subscribes to the neocon belief that Iran’s president “sees himself as an instrument for accelerating the coming of the 12th Imam — which is preceded in the mythology by the equivalent of Armageddon.”1

Ross, by the way, is a co-founder of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which includes on its board of advisors such luminaries as former secretaries of state Alexander Haig and Henry A. Kissinger, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, former Director of Central Intelligence R. James Woolsey, and, at its founding, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick.

The Institute recently released a “Presidential Study Group Report” titled “Preventing a Cascade of Instability: U.S. Engagement to Check Iranian Nuclear Progress.”  The report calls for increasing pressure on Iran to force it to end its nuclear program: “If engagement fails to produce an agreement, a strategy of tightening economic sanctions and international political pressure in conjunction with all other policy instruments provides a basis for longterm containment of Iran’s nuclear ambitions” (emphasis mine).2

Of course, the report doesn’t mention that Iran has a sovereign right to develop nuclear power for peaceful energy purposes, a right recognized by the United Nations because Iran is a signatory to the U.N.’s Non-Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, or NPT. The NPT’s inspection arm, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has carried out repeated and extensive inspections of Iran’s nuclear program and each time has concluded that Iran is not trying to develop nuclear weapons.  That evaluation was seconded on November 2007 by the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies in their National Intelligence Estimate, their annual evaluation of potential threats to the U.S.

And yet the charge of a secret nuclear weapons program continues under the Obama administration, as it did under Bush.

It’s a charge heavily aided by the media.

The Associated Press, the only U.S.-based, nationally oriented news service, produces and/or circulates news stories published by more than 1,700 newspapers, plus more than 5,000 television and radio broadcasters.  It also operates The Associated Press Radio Network, which provides newscasts for broadcast and satellite stations.

In other words, it has juice.

And this is how the AP, which regularly refers vaguely and therefore deceptively to “Iran’s nuclear ambitions,” covered the Iranian reaction to Obama’s Nowruz greetings:

. . . Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s response was more than just a dismissive slap at the outreach.  It was a broad lesson in the mind-set of Iran’s all-powerful theocracy and how it will dictate the pace and tone of any new steps by Obama to chip away at their nearly 30-year diplomatic freeze.

That’s supposed to be a news report, by the way, not an op-ed piece.

The AP report, by longtime AP reporter Brian Murphy, went on to quote a series of “experts” on Iran, including Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council.

We’ve already discussed the Washington Institute.

Ilan Berman has consulted for both the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Department of Defense.  He’s also a member of the reconstituted, Cold War-era Committee on the Present Danger, which includes among its illustrious roster former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, a “leading writer and ideologue of the nonconservative political faction since the group began to emerge in the late 1960s.”3

So what can we conclude from all this?

The Obama administration, just like the Bush regime before it, is demanding that Iran end its pursuit of nuclear power, an effort it claims is a cover for producing nuclear weapons.  It provides no evidence for its accusation, and neither can the U.N.’s nuclear proliferation inspection agency or any of the 16 U.S intelligence agencies.  And Iran, as a signatory to the U.N.’s NPT, has every right to pursue nuclear power for peaceful energy purposes.

But yet the Obama administration demands that Iran end that legal program.  To which Iran’s leaders say, not surprisingly, “No.”

So what was the real purpose of President Obama’s Nowruz’s message to the Iranian people and its government?

A March 21 Wall Street Journal story on the Nowruz address offers one possible explanation:

Senior U.S. officials say [Obama’s] administration wants to persuade the world that it is different from President George W. Bush and is going the extra mile to give Iran a chance.  If Tehran rebuffs the overtures and sticks to its nuclear program, Washington can more easily seek broad support for coercive measures, such as financial sanctions or even potential military action, they say.4

In light of all this, Ayatollah Khamenei’s response to Obama’s olive branch might seem eminently reasonable.


1  Dennis Ross, “A New Strategy on Iran,” Washington Post, 1 May 2006.

2  Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 2009, <www.washingtoninstitute.org/pubPDFs/PTF-Iran.pdf>.

3  Political Research Associates, “Norman Podhoretz,” Right Web Profile, 28 February 2008.

4  Jay Solomon and Chip Cummins, “U.S. Further Ramps Up Contact with Iran,” Wall Street Journal, 21 March 2009.

Phil Wilayto is a writer and activist living in Richmond, Virginia.  His latest book is In Defense of Iran: Notes from a U.S. Peace Delegation’s Journey through the Islamic Republic (order a copy at www.DefendersFJE.org/dpi)  He can be reached at <philwilayto@earthlink.net>.