Obama speaks to Iranian people in video message

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 19, 2009 

WASHINGTON — In an unprecedented video message released Friday on the celebration of the Persian new year, President Barack Obama speaks directly to the Iranian people and government, saying his administration "is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us" and that that the process "will not be advanced by threats."

Obama describes a "common humanity that binds us together" despite three decades of strained relations and calls for "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect."

"Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak," he says — Happy New Year.

While the United States "wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations" Obama says, "That place cannot be reached through terror or arms."

The video was distributed with Farsi subtitles to news outlets with a regional reach, including BBC Persia, Al Jazeera English, the Voice of America and others, and was also posted on the White House Web site and You Tube, aides said late Thursday.

The video goes significantly beyond the standard practice of U.S. presidents issuing statements in celebration of Nowruz — and enables Obama to communicate directly to Iranian officials in a way he couldn't in person or in the context of a policy discussion.

The ancient, pre-Islamic celebration is pegged to the start of spring and is the biggest holiday for Iranians.

Obama's message is packed with praise for the contributions of Persian civilization and uses the word "respect."

But its framing also sends a subtle message — that Iran's claim to greatness hinges not on its modern history, its leaders' hostility to Israel or its nuclear program, but on its long history.

"Over many centuries your art, your music, literature and innovation have made the world a better and more beautiful place," Obama says, adding that the society must be measured by what it creates, not by what it can destroy.

Part of Obama's message appeared designed to capitalize on widespread admiration for the United States among ordinary Iranians, as well as unhappiness with their own leaders.

Although he appears favored to win re-election in June, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his economic policies are widely unpopular with Iranian businessmen, young Iranians and even some Islamic clerics.

The rest of Obama's message was directed towards Iranian leaders, and is part of an emerging U.S. diplomatic approach that even administration officials acknowledge may not succeed.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due to attend an international conference on Afghanistan at the end of the month, and Iran also has been invited.

The State Department confirmed on Thursday that it's sending a senior official to another conference in Moscow next week where Iranian officials also will be present.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said there are no plans for "substantive" U.S.-Iranian meetings in the Russian capital, but the presence of the American envoys sends a clear diplomatic signal nonetheless.

Obama, however, may find that Iran's leaders, headed by supreme religious leader Ali Khamenei, may be unwilling — or unable — to respond to his feelers.

Opposition to the United States and Israel is a central pillar of the Iranian regime's philosophy, and hardliners have repeatedly blocked overtures from Washington. At the same time, the White House's approach could put the fiery Ahmadinejad on the defensive, pressuring him to respond.

The United States and Iran haven't had diplomatic relations since early 1980, when President Jimmy Carter broke off ties several months after Islamic militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

Shaul Bakhash, a professor of history and an Iran expert at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said that Obama is sending "quite a significant message" that strikes a respectful tone that contrasts with former President George W. Bush's approach. "This is not framed as an attempt to go over the head of the Iranian government to speak to the people."

"The really interesting thing is whether the Iranian government will understand this for what it is meant to convey, which is a reaching out, and to respond appropriately," Bakhash said. "If they don't, it's a great opportunity missed."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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