By Thomas Erdbrink and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 21, 2009
TEHRAN, March 20 -- President Obama released a holiday video greeting to Iran on Friday, offering a "new beginning" in a tone that differed sharply from the anti-Iran rhetoric of his predecessor but that drew only mixed responses from Iranian officials and analysts.
Released on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian new year, Obama's message said the United States seeks engagement with Iran "that is honest and grounded in mutual respect," but cautioned that the country cannot "take its rightful place in the community of nations . . . through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization."
Obama, in a three-minute speech made available on the Internet and sent to international broadcasters, twice referred to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the country's official name, signaling an apparent break from President George W. Bush's unstated promotion of a change of leadership. Bush routinely called the Iranian government a "regime" that should not be trusted by its people and said the country was part of an "axis of evil."
Obama's overture was part of an administration effort to engage Iran more directly, in large part to resolve concerns over Iran's nuclear program, which the government in Tehran says is peaceful but which has provoked international suspicion that Iran seeks to develop nuclear weapons.
It can take days for Iran's leadership to articulate a unified stance on sensitive issues, which Obama's message appeared to be. State television made no mention of the greeting and stayed with its holiday programming. Much of Tehran was deserted as people took part in family celebrations.
Still, some Iranian officials welcomed the comments but observed that words were not enough and that Obama should speak more directly to Iran's rulers. "These are real problems that cannot be solved by only talking. We need to see real steps from the U.S.," said Ali Akbar Javanfekr, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's press adviser.
"Statesmen address each other, instead of talking to the people," added Hussein Alaei, an influential retired admiral in the Revolutionary Guard Corps, offering an indication of how the comments will be interpreted by hard-line elements within Iran's government who maintain control over foreign policy.
And Sadegh Kharrazi, Iran's former ambassador to France, said: "Obama had no practical suggestion that we can work with. This is a lost opportunity."
Alaei said he did not detect in Obama's comments a willingness to engage in the rapprochement Iran is seeking: a grand bargain that would address the full range of issues dividing the two governments. U.S. officials have said they are inclined to work with Iran on individual issues. "All outstanding issues between Iran and the United States should be seen as a package first. We should start working on the main problems first and discuss the details later," he said.
"The U.S. has a problem with our uranium enrichment program, Iran's support for Hamas and Hezbollah and our influence in Iraq," Alaei said. "If they prove that they are serious in talking to us, we can act in these fields."
Iran wants the United States to accept its form of religious government, end all covert operations against Iran, accept its nuclear energy program, lift sanctions and acknowledge its status as a regional power. The Obama administration wants to address Iran's links to what the United States calls terrorist groups, resolve the nuclear issue and win Iranian cooperation on regional issues such as Afghanistan.
"In politics everything is possible," said Kharrazi, who is widely considered to be an architect of the package approach, which Iranian officials proposed in 2003. "The problems between the two countries will eventually be solved through a grand bargain. But this attitude by the Obama administration is turning our optimism into pessimism." He and Alaei criticized Obama's decision to renew trade sanctions against Iran.
The administration is still engaged in a lengthy review of its policy toward Iran, but U.S. officials have decided that they cannot wait for the Iranian elections in June to begin a new approach. Obama is likely to approve lifting a ban that prevents U.S. diplomats from talking to their Iranian counterparts, officials said. Currently, U.S. diplomats must receive explicit permission to speak to an Iranian, even at social functions.
The administration's first opportunity for direct contact with the Iranian government will come Friday at a regional conference on Afghanistan. Iran has observer status; the United States does not but was invited to attend by the meeting's Russian hosts. The State Department announced Thursday it would send a senior official to the meeting although spokesman Robert A. Wood said there were "no plans for any substantive meetings with Iran."
The administration also recently pushed for an international conference on Afghanistan that includes Iran, which will be held in the Netherlands on March 31. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will attend, allowing for the possibility of the first foreign minister-level contacts between the two countries since 2007.
Clinton and others have expressed doubt that the approach will be successful, and so administration officials are also grappling with the right combination of pressure and outreach. In one sign that the administration also plans to increase pressure on Iran, Obama unexpectedly retained Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey, whose efforts during the Bush administration to choke off Iranian banking from international commerce have proved to be more effective at harming the Iranian government than sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council, intended to force Iran to cease the enrichment of uranium.
One senior European official who recently met with administration officials said a key question the administration may face is when to decide that efforts at engagement have failed. "It's difficult to stop talking once you start, but the Iranians have never talked substantively with us," despite repeated European efforts, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was describing private conversations.
Still, he expressed hope that this time it might be different. "Because the Americans are stepping in, you are changing the rules of the game -- because of your power, because of the fascination of the Iranian people with America and because of the Obama factor," the official said.
Israeli President Shimon Peres also sent Nowruz greetings to Iran on Friday. But the message, delivered via Israel Radio's Farsi-language channel, was addressed specifically to Iran's people and not their government, reprising the tone of Bush. Peres described Ahmadinejad, who has excoriated Israel and denied the Holocaust, and other Iranian leaders as "a handful of religious fanatics [who] take the worst possible path."
"It is impossible to preserve a whole nation on incitement and hatred. The people will become tired of it," Peres said, according to a transcript provided by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "I think that the Iranian people will topple these leaders."
The White House said Obama's message, offered in versions that included English or Farsi subtitles, was distributed to broadcasters with a presence in Iran, including the BBC and Voice of America. The video can be downloaded from YouTube, which Iranian authorities occasionally block, as well as from the White House Web site.
Ahmadinejad sent Obama a message in November, congratulating him on his election victory, the first time since the 1979 revolution that an Iranian leader had made such a gesture. When there was no reaction from the president-elect, some Iranian leaders and analysts expressed their disappointment.
In his greeting, Obama quoted the 13th-century Persian poet Saadi Shirazi, who wrote:
The Children of Adam are limbs of each other
Having been created of one essence.
Obama did not quote the rest of the verse, which says:
When the calamity of time afflicts one limb
The other limbs cannot remain at rest.
If thou hast no sympathy for the troubles of others
Thou art unworthy to be called by the name of a man.
Instead, the president ended his message with "Eideh shoma mobarak," Farsi for "Happy new year."
Kessler reported from Washington. Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Debbi Wilgoren in Washington and special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoei in Tehran contributed to this report.