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New Day: Obama addresses Iran (White House photo).

In a warm, cleverly worded, ever-so slightly patronizing three-and-a-half minute message "to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran," President Obama on Friday sought to end 30 years of mutual belligerence between the two countries by seizing "the promise of a new day" and seeking engagement with Iran "that is honest and grounded in mutual respect."

The essence of Obama's message, original not just in style but in substance, was its explicit embrace of a new day. Things go forward from here on. Enough looking back. Setting that out as a founding principle of future talks, Obama appears to be grasping the most important truth about the Middle East: history is the quagmire. Get past it, and you might get somewhere. Obama made that leap in his Nowruz message. Iran's response fell short.

Not the First New Day

It's not the first time an American or Iranian leader rustled the leaves of an olive branch (if not quite extending the olive branch itself). Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton's secretary of state, twice in two years used almost the same language as Obama regarding Iran. "Spring is the season of hope and renewal, of planting the seeds for new crops," she said in a March 2000 speech to the American-Iranian Council, "and my hope is that in both Iran and the United States, we can plant the seeds now for a new and better relationship in years to come." Two years earlier, remarking on the reformist presidency of Mohammed Khatami in a speech to the Asia Society, Albright had spoken of viewing "these developments with interest, both with regard to the possibility of Iran assuming its rightful place in the world community, and the chance for better bilateral ties."

Khatami himself that same year, in a long interview on CNN, spoke hopefully of establishing cultural ties with the United States as a step toward resuming fuller relations. Khatami made good on his desire for closer ties when he aided the Bush administration with intelligence and logistic support in the 2001 assault on the Taliban in Afghanistan (the Taliban's extremist-Sunni doctrines being anathema to Iran's extremist-Shiite doctrines). For that, Khatami was rewarded with Iran's inclusion in the "Axis of Evil" by Bush in his 2002 State of the Union message, wrecking chances of further improvements and severely damaging Khatami's credibility at home.

Still, none of those overture come close to Obama's in tone, directness, or drama: here is an American president not even waiting for lower-level table-setters to prepare the way to address Iranians directly. Nor did Obama play coy regarding whom he was addressing. Previous leaders often used "the Iranian people" as a hedge against the appearance of speaking directly to the Iranian leadership. Obama didn't bother. He spoke to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran's spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, albeit without naming them (there are limits after all).

And he referred to Iran by its existing name: the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is no small distinction, especially to the ears of Iran's leadership. In eight years, the Bush White House referred to Iran countless times, but only as "Iran." Not once--not once--did anyone in the Bush White House refer to the Islamic Republic of Iran. On a single occasion, the phrase did appear, but only as a shirt-tail reference to the origin of a quote by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ("on Islamic Republic Of Iran News Network Television"), and in a briefing on "What the Terrorists Believe."

A Three-Headed Speech

Obama's speech sounded like a graceful note of conciliation. A closer look reveals three elements.

  • The warm and fuzzies. That takes up almost half the speech, a necessary rhetorical thawing of the silence and derision that preceded it while creating connections between Iranian and American civilization, to say nothing of the more than 1 million Iranians living in the United States. That's the "promise of a new day" section of the speech.

  • The agenda-setting in a direct appeal. About half-way through the speech, Obama ditches the Iranian people "to speak clearly to Iran's leaders." He doesn't whitewash the "serious differences that have grown over time," but the key line in this section is this: "My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us." In other words, nothing is off the table. I read that as opening the way not only for an explicit role for Iranian influence in Iraq and Afghanistan, but as a suggestion that a compromise may be explored in Iran's quest for nuclear weapons.

  • The caveat. This is the paragraph written not for Iran's mullahs, but for America's--for red-meat Republicans. It's where Obama turns patronizing to the point of imperiousness, setting out the United States as the arbiter of Iran's choices: "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." Iranians will understandably reply that it isn't the place of the United States or any other nation to lecture it about its rights. But this is all a set-up for what comes next: That right, Obama went on, "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." Those are less specific echoes from Albright's 1998 speech, when she said that "hopes must be balanced against the reality that Iran's support for terrorism has not yet ceased; serious violations of human rights persist; and its efforts to develop long range missiles and to acquire nuclear weapons continue."

Hedging and Balancing

The speech then reverts to commonalities and poetry, quoting the amply bilateral line (in implication and religious imagery) by the Medieval Persian poet and social philosopher Saadi, a liberal mystic of his day: "The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence." Again, Obama is speaking here more to American conservatives, who are suckers for religious allusions to founding ribs, than to Iranian clerics, who don't have to be lectured about their spiritual anatomy.

Most of the commentary I've seen today focuses on Obama addressing Iran, as if that's all he was doing. We'd be missing the cleverness and purpose of the address if we don't pay attention to its attempt to disarm domestic criticism for anything that looks like a friendly overture toward Iran, overdue though it is: the alternative isn't working, and it's making Iran more powerful in the Middle East and its clerical reactionaries more legitimate than they deserve to be.

The final line, spoken in Persian, was a deft touch: Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak (though again, Albright beat him to it in 2000).

Iran's Response

Iran's response was swift (a sign of respect) but not quite original, nor too elevated. It came from Aliakbar Javanfekr, an aide to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which suggests that the knee-jerk response is taking precedence while a more calculated response, either from Ahmadinejad or, more importantly, from Ayatollah Khamenei, who decides all fates in Iran, may be in the works.

"We welcome the interest of the American government to settle differences (with Iran). The American government should realize its previous mistakes and make an effort to amend them in order to put aside differences," Javanfekr said. "By fundamentally changing its behavior, America can offer us a friendly hand. So far what we have received have been unfriendly fists. Unlimited sanctions which still continue and have been renewed by the United States are wrong and need to be reviewed." Javanfekr cleverly turned on its head Obama's famous line from his inaugural address ("we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist").

But Iran's response is still the same old rhetoric, brandishing America's alliance with Israel as an inherent obstacle (Iran will have to get over that one) and wagging a patronizing finger of its own with admonitions that the United States should admit to past mistakes. Again, that quagmire.

Perhaps it's too much to expect from the office of the unimaginative Ahmadinejad a response on par with Obama's. But no less will lead to progress. Maybe Iranians are getting another message between Obama's lines: Come the June 12 presidential election, get rid of that nullity in Ahmadinejad and elect someone who'll be serious about reform. Someone who doesn't necessarily speak Obama's language, but who at least appreciates Saadi's.

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