In an unprecedented - if not historic - New Year's message to the Iranian people and the government of Iran, President Barack Obama used the ancient Iranian New Year - Norooz - holiday to usher in a new beginning for US-Iran relations.
The video message, aired around 0800am in the morning in Iran, will be the topic of conversation at every Norooz gathering - in Iran as well as in America.
"For nearly three decades relations between our nations have been strained. But at this holiday we are reminded of the common humanity that binds us together," the president said.
Expressing deep admiration and respect for Iranian civilization - as well as the contributions of Iranian Americans to American society - Obama put forward a vision for a new era of US-Iran ties. In almost every aspect, Obama's approach was the opposite of that of President George Bush.
First, he did not try to bypass the Iranian government by speaking to the Iranian people alone. Instead, he addressed both.
Second, he referred to the "Islamic Republic of Iran," the formal name of Iran after the 1979 revolution, indicating his acceptance of the revolution and the reality of the current government. This will likely be read in Tehran as an indication that the policy of the United States no longer is regime change. This does not, of course, mean that Obama opposes democratization in Iran - rather, it means that Washington will seek behavioral rather than regime change in Tehran.
Third, he recognized that threats will not help resolve US-Iran tensions. No more "all options are on the table" or the implicit or explicit threat of force as a stick to compel Iranian submission.
Fourth, he recognizes that all outstanding issues between the two countries must be addressed in an atmosphere of mutual respect. It is not just America's concerns with Iran that will be addressed, but also Iranian concerns.
Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, Obama signaled America's strategic intent to achieve constructive ties among the United States and Iran. This is essential as he declared that the American end game is to have a positive relationship with Iran and that he intends to put the destructive enmity of the past three decades behind them. Signaling this intent will make any tactical cooperation with Iran in Afghanistan more likely and more fruitful, for reasons I have explained here and here. Absent this strategic signal, the Iranians would likely have refused helping the United States tactically in Afghanistan.
Sixth, within that strategic intent, Obama declared that the United States wants Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations - meaning an American acceptance of a prominent Iranian role in the region, granted of course, that Iran changes its behavior. Obama understands what the Iranians want - recognition and inclusion in the region's political, economic and security structures - and he is willing to offer it if the Iranians change their policies. This is a significant break with the Bush Administration policies.
"So on the occasion of your New Year, I want you, the people and leaders of Iran, to understand the future that we seek," Obama said. "It's a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce."
Finally, by quoting one of Iran's great poets, Saadi, Obama showed once more his respect and appreciation for Iranian culture - and that he understands that uniqueness of the Iranian nation. Iran is its own civilization - something the President of the United States appreciates and respects.
The Iranian people could not have wished for a better Norooz greeting. Yet, Obama cannot dance this tango alone. The ball is in Iran's court. Tehran should be careful not to miss this opportunity to transform US-Iran relations from destructive enmity to constructive partnership.
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