President Barack Obama has taken the first step toward reversing United States policies and actions aimed at Iran that have failed both countries for the past 56 years. "My 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," the president said. "We seek engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect" and "a future with renewed exchanges among our people and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce; a future where the old divisions are overcome."
A little recognition, a little respect, goes a long way with a people who have had such a tortured history with the United States. For too long policymakers from both Republican and Democratic administrations, from John Foster Dulles to Zbigniew Brzezenski, have viewed Iran not as a sovereign nation with a diverse population and an illustrious history, but as what Thomas Friedman calls "geostrategic space." During the long Cold War with the Soviet Union, American foreign policy elites believed Iran was so important to U.S. "vital interests" in the Persian Gulf that they had to lock down the Iranian people with a brutal right-wing dictatorship under Shah Reza Pahlavi.
In 1953, the Eisenhower administration, concerned with Soviet power -- as well as wishing to maintain Anglo-American control of Iran's vast oil and natural gas reserves -- decided to re-write Iran's history. For the first time the Central Intelligence Agency overthrew a foreign government. The U.S. turned a fledgling democracy under Prime Minister Mohammed Mossedegh into a buccaneering dictatorship. The CIA even created the Shah's secret police, SAVAK, which terrorized, tortured, and killed tens of thousands of the regime's opponents. For twenty-five years the Iranian people suffered under an American-backed government that was always near the top of the world's worst human rights violators.
This background gives President Obama's simple "Nowruz" (New Year) greeting to the Iranian people added weight and significance. Honoring a campaign promise, President Obama is reaching out for a dialogue with Iran. His brief statement to the Iranians, titled "A New Year, A New Beginning," expressed warmth and the "promise of a new day" in U.S.-Iranian discourse. It is his administration's first prudent, long-overdue step toward normalizing diplomatic relations with Iran. Responding to President Obama, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, after some familiar anti-American boilerplate, offered a ray of hope: "Should you change, our behavior will change, too." This exchange is a far cry from the bellowing about the "Axis of Evil" and the "Great Satan" that have marred American-Iranian relations for the past three decades.
Last week President Obama seized control of his own message. He bypassed the Beltway gatekeepers utilizing new media as well as old, such as his appearance on Jay Leno's Tonight Show. David Broder, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, and other stodgy, unimaginative members of the White House press corps tried to filter Obama's communication but the president made an end run around them. President Obama is wisely nurturing a direct channel to the American people unencumbered by elite media gatekeepers. Given the current crises we face this direct interaction is essential; it's a 21st Century version of FDR's fireside chats. He took a similar path free from the corporate media filter to speak directly to the Iranians (with Farsi subtitles).
Better relations between the United States and Iran are the key to stability in the Middle East. Iran shares a long border with Iraq and has deep cultural and religious ties to Iraq's Shia population. Iran also has strong ties to the Shia President of Iraq, Nouri Al-Maliki, and his Dawa Party. The Iranians were helpful for a time against the Taliban in Afghanistan until Bush labeled them part of the "Axis of Evil." The United States and Iran share mutual strategic interests in the region and by engaging Iran President Obama is making a clear break not only from the disastrous Bush policies but also from the policies of the past half-century.
Unfortunately, the Israeli government thought it would be cunning to issue its own New Year's "greeting" to the Iranian people with the clear aim of diluting the impact of the president's message. The only effect Israel's "greeting" will have inside Iran will be to give Iranian hardliners a political boost, which was exactly what Obama did NOT want to do. Iran faces a pivotal election this June and Israel has made it easier for hard-line politicians to blur the distinctions between Israeli and U.S. policy, thereby rendering Obama's words meaningless in the eyes of many of their constituents. The Israeli maneuver works against President Obama's goal of strengthening the moderates in Iran.
In the waning days of the Bush administration, the Israeli government unleashed the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in Gaza thereby creating more problems on the ground for the in-coming Obama Administration in its pursuit of peace negotiations. The Gaza operation was clearly timed to coincide with the American political transition. Israel also successfully lobbied through the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to block the appointment of Charles Freeman to a key foreign policy post because he was deemed not "pro-Israel" enough. And now Israel attempted to dilute President Obama's historic message to the Iranians by issuing one of its own. These are all indications of Israeli meddling in the formulation and conduct of American foreign policy. For a nation that receives billions of American taxpayer dollars each year it is a curious way to show gratitude.
After committing his administration to a future of honest and respectful diplomacy, President Obama addressed Iran's leaders directly: "You, too, have a choice. 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. And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create."
Loud elements allied with Israel including Benny Morris, John Bolton, and Norman Podhoretz still call for a military attack on Iran despite the fact that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff prevailed upon Bush to forego such a course because it would be a disaster for the United States. American relations with the rest of the world must not be held hostage by the likes of Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman. President Obama should be permitted to run his own foreign policy. The American people are facing the worst economic crisis in seventy years while footing the bill for two costly and misguided military occupations. They have little appetite for launching yet another (bigger) war in the Middle East. President Obama's promise of a new day in U.S.-Iranian relations must be given the opportunity to bear fruit free from outside intervention.