Archive for the ‘Obama’ Category

The Perspective from Washington

April 9, 2009


THE OBAMA’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE…
US-IRAN MEETING… good/don’t expect movement soon

Washington, D.C.

By CHRIS NELSON
THE NELSON REPORT

SUMMARY: much punditry has already been expended arguing that while the Barack and Michelle Show was a huge ratings success with the Euro public and media, “not much was accomplished”.

Nonsense, we’d argue, if you take even a medium-term look at what happened.

Basically, Obama and the First Lady put “good will” money in the bank which, for the first time in years, gives the USG a chance to bring friends and allies along on difficult issues and decisions in ways which don’t alienate their voters at home.

And in his speech to the Turks, pointedly introduced by their president as Barack Hussein Obama, he declared in such a way as possibly to be believed, that the US is not at war with Islam.

If Obama carries out his expected, and much anticipated “home visit” to Indonesia later this year, he will get a chance to re-build several bridges, including to world Islam, to SE Asia, to ASEAN, et al.

News today of a related subject…Iran, its nuclear program, and what Obama’s policy/strategy will be, once the internal review is completed.

A “leading indicator”…Sec. St. Clinton’s announcement today the US “from now on” will join the UN’s “Perm-5+1” meetings with Iran.

It’s always difficult to parse the good cop/bad cop tactics used on Iran, given the possibility of Israel concluding it can wait for a deal no longer, and so must try to knock-out the nuclear program with bombs.

The Obama folks have been somewhat confusing on any US backing for such a risky move…Gen. Petraeus warning that Israel might have to, but VP Biden very clearly saying it would be “ill-advised” for new Prime Minister Netanyahu to do that.

Not un-related to the Iran conundrum, of course, is N. Korea, and we’ve been presenting useful OpEds all week. Tonight we hear from the Stanford Shorenstein Center’s Dan Sneider, summing up what we think is an emerging consensus…the missile test shows weakness, let the DPRK leadership come to us…stop trying to find the right bribe price to get what Kim and the boys are not going to give.

-0-

IRAN…as noted, the Obama policy review on Iran is almost completed, sources say, so don’t get too many hopes up just yet to Sec. State Hillary Clinton’s announcement that the US will, “from now on”, be full partners in the UN “Perm-5+1” negotiations with Iran.

President Bush authorized the occasional direct participation, starting last year, but today’s announcement clearly sets a new tone, and a commitment to a peaceful resolution which often was doubted, given the rumblings from VP Cheney, and his neo-con allies, about perhaps needing to bomb Iran soon.

UnderSec Bill Burns today joined a Perm-5+1 meeting to personally convey the shift in tactics, if not policy…that remains to be seen.

Even before the announcement, President Amadinejad, facing what may be increasing opposition to his re-election in June, said he welcomes an “honest…hand extended”…and said so on national TV.

Official word will apparently be conveyed via an invitation to resume talks delivered by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who added that his group welcomed what he called the “new direction” of the US, under Obama.

So things are looking great, right?

Ummmm….

Experts point out that the Iranians detest Solana, so that’s a problem up front.

And recent “we have to bomb” statements by Israeli hard-liners, now on the ascendency with the return of arch hard-liner Bibi Netanyahu as Prime Minister, have re-opened concerns here that for reasons which are perfectly understandable, Israeli patience with Iran has a much, much shorter fuse than either the US or Europe.

For Israel, the chance that Iran is about to achieve actual, literal bomb-production capacity is strategically an intolerable risk, at least with the current Iranian regime and its posture on Israel.

CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus was trying, if unartfully, to convey that concern with his testimony to Senate Armed Services last week that Israel may indeed decide to attack.

Some experts say the debate within the Obama Administration (to the extent policy-makers are in place) has asked whether the Israeli threats give the US (and the Perm-5 process) useful “leverage” in future negotiations.

Perhaps, but with Iranian elections coming soon, any such talk (much less an attack!) is seen here as likely reinforcing Iranian hard-liners and support for the egregious Amadinejad.

Petraeus’ remarks were seen as “unartful”, rather than a pure expression of Obama policy, because he neglected (or forgot?) to add the required comment that the US either opposes Israeli airstrikes, or worries about the blow-back.

So it fell to VP Joe Biden to come out strongly against the idea, telling CNN last night “I don’t believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu would…[in fact] I think he would be ill-advised to do that.”

As Loyal Readers/experienced commentators Gary Porter and Jim Lobe note in their IPS filing today:

“His remarks suggested that any proposal to exploit the threat of an Israeli attack as part of a ‘good cop/bad cop’ tactic with Iran would run into stiff opposition within the Administration, since it would rest on the credibility that the threat was real and that the US would not actively oppose its being carried out.”

A sense of the “flavor” of the on-going Obama internal debate can be had, however, by noting Gary and Jim’s reminders that last Fall, Secretary Clinton’s newly minted special advisor on Iran, Dennis Ross, warned that “if the international community appears unable to stop Iran’s nuclear progress, Israel may decide to act unilaterally.

Please note, this is not Ross endorsing such a move, just pointing out the obvious. Still, it feeds the overall good cop/bad cop parsing game.

Similarly, Porter and Lobe remind, the new White House coordinator on WMD, Gary Samore, and the new Undersec/Def Ash Carter, told a Harvard forum last Fall that while the dangers of an Israeli action are clear, there may be utility in the US using that threat for negotiating leverage.

The point, again, is that these new Obama officials are NOT arguing to justify an Israel action…they ARE pointing out that at a certain point which Israel must define, not anyone else, Israel will face a possible life or death choice.

So…that’s the context within which the Hillary Clinton announcement today should be placed:

Obama has decided to directly and consistently engage Iran on nukes, in hopes of at the very least calming Israeli fears for the time being, while the “international community” works to come up with a deal acceptable to Tehran.

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N. KOREA…we’ve been beating on this drum all week, and will simply repeat tonight our basic “message” that the Obama Administration’s policy review on DPRK policy faces a real series of conundrums:

China’s view of the DPRK strategic threat remains as out of sync now with the US as it did throughout the Bush Administration;

With the exception of some NGO’s and a handful tireless, hopeful “New York Connection” folks…almost no N. Korea experts now have any faith that a formula of inducements and agreements can be actually put into place which would produce real, full “denuclearization” by the regime of Kim Jong-il;

Kim’s recent stroke, and the uptick in hostile statements and actions, especially against S. Korea, would seem to indicate anxiety over his succession, and so the survival of his supporters, once he leaves the scene;

Almost no N. Korea experts feel that the Kim regime can long survive any genuine efforts at economic reform…the classic “revolution of rising expectations” is seen now, as in Eastern Europe nearly 20 years ago, as a wind which will blow them away;

Unfortunately, add all these contradictions up and what you get is a status-quo in which the Kim regime has an active nuclear weapons capacity, and a very active proliferation menace…see the nuclear plant bombed by Israel, and the missiles sold to Iran;

But if the US ever concedes such a nuclear-capable status quo, the strategic calculation of Japan and S. Korea, at a minimum, must undergo drastic revision in terms of discussion…policy outcomes to be determined;

If ANY real “leverage” exists with Beijing, that might be it.

To sum up in a non-policy way, we detect a big case of “DPRK Fatigue” setting in. TOO much “drama queen”, too LITTLE positive action.

OK, they dismantled Yongbyon, but…they had already extracted all the PU needed for a dozen weapons, and smack in the middle of the 6 Party process they sold a nuclear plant to Syria!

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Media get it wrong, again

March 25, 2009

Editorial: The Daily Star

U.S. President Barack Obama’s effort to begin a dialogue with the Islamic Republic of Iran has already hit a brick wall. But the obstacle that stands in the way of rapprochement is not, as the American media would lead one to believe, the mullahs in Tehran. Rather, it is the American media itself.

U.S. newspapers and television stations reported over the weekend that Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei immediately “rebuffed,” “brushed aside,” “dismissed” or flat-out “rejected” Obama’s recent video appeal for talks. But the reality is something quite different.

Khamenei in fact delivered a carefully crafted address in which he welcomed Obama’s offer for talks, but also set specific parameters in which negotiations can happen. He even identified concrete steps that the United States can take to demonstrate that it is interested in a genuine dialogue based on an open exchange of views. Continue reading

Dialogue or Dictating to Iran?

March 23, 2009



Beirut
By RAMI G. KHOURI
Tehran Bureau | comment

U.S. President Barack Obama continues to make intriguing gestures in the Middle East that seem to soften or even reverse the policies of the George W. Bush administration, the latest being his video taped message to the Iranian people and leaders on the occasion of the Nowruz holiday that ushers in Spring. Obama should be commended for his initiative, which started from his first moments in office when he made a gesture to the people of Iran during his inaugural address.

Obama said in the message that, “My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties… This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.”

He made this intriguing gesture in the context of his administration earlier this month extending sanctions against Iran for one more year, on the basis that Washington sees Iran as posing a threat to U.S. national security. If sticks and stones speak louder than words, the American sanctions against Iran would seem to convey a much tougher posture than the reconciliatory video message. This would seem to be the first contradiction the United States needs to sort out in its overtures to Iran.

Another one is the tendency to reach out with happy words that preach friendship and mutual respect, while also laying down the law on what Iran must do if it wants to be invited for tea at the White House. Obama said the United States wanted Iran to take its “rightful place in the community of nations,” but he also laid down some markers for Iran’s behavior, noting that Tehran would have to do its part to bring about reconciliation.

“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,” he said.

He went on to add, “And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create.”

We should not underestimate the courage and self-confidence it took for Obama to move in this direction and to make several gestures towards Iran since taking office. He reflects real strength, political realism and much humility in being able to reverse many aspects of the belligerent Bush approach and instead to reach out to Iran.

Yet the persistent flaw in the Obama approach that might prove to be fatal is a lingering streak of arrogance that is reflected in both the tone and the substance of his message. This is most obvious in his insistence — after telling the Iranians that they are a great culture with proud traditions, which is presumably something they already knew, experienced and felt on their own — on lecturing Iran about the responsibilities that come with the right to assume its place in the “community of nations”, and then linking Iran’s behavior with “terror of arms” and a “capacity to destroy.”

It is difficult to see how Washington feels the positive gestures of reaching out can be reconciled with the American president’s irrepressible need to lecture others about the rules of righteous nationhood. One of the principal complaints that Iran has against the United States — and this is mirrored in widespread Arab and Islamist resistance to the United States and its allies — is the lingering colonial tendency by the leading Western powers to feel that they write the rules for the conduct of other nations.

This complaint is exacerbated by hearing the Americans warn against the “ability to destroy” and the danger of using “terror or arms” — while Washington sends hundreds of thousands of its troops around the world on destructive yet dubious missions, backs its allies in various Arab countries with a gusher of arms, and enthusiastically stands by Israel in the latter’s actions in Lebanon and Palestine in what many see as a policy of state terror.

The American gestures to Iran seem sincere and serious, but from the Iranian perspective they still suffer from the persistent structural weakness of dictating the rules of the game to Iran and others in the Arab-Asian region, rather than engaging in a genuine dialogue. This flaw should not detract from the constructive effort that the Obama administration is making or blind us to the real shifts it has already initiated. At some point, though, Obama has to decide if he wants to dictate rules, or engage in real dialogue, because the two cannot happen together — especially if the standards of behavior the United States wants to see from Iran are often ignored by Washington itself along with its closest allies, such as Israel.

We can celebrate Nowruz together and usher in a genuinely new Spring, or we can soon celebrate April Fool’s day, but in the world of diplomacy and political relations we cannot do both at the same time.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.

Copyright © 2009 Rami G. Khouri – distributed by Agence Global

Obama’s New Year message and the nuclear nettle

March 20, 2009

(ABC News Photo Illustration)

Sooner or later, the U.S. president must move to specifics with Iran.

Middle East
By GARETH SMYTH
Tehran Bureau | comment

Barack Obama’s Nowruz message to Iran is pushing important buttons. As Iranians go about the ancient rituals of their New Year, many will feel a warm pride that the U.S. president has praised their “great civilization.”

Obama’s message is in marked contrast to George Bush’s inept call for Iranians not to vote in the 2005 presidential election, when Tehran state TV relayed his words again and again in order to draw people to the polls.

Against Bush’s designation of Iran as part of an “axis of evil,” Obama quoted the 13th century poet Saadi: “The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence.”

Now Iran will ask, where’s the beef?

Ali Akbar Javanfekr, an advisor to president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has quickly welcomed Obama’s broadcast, stressing Iran’s interest in “the overcoming of the problems between the two nations, the solving of issues that run deep.”

But Javanfekr also reiterated demands of the U.S. – that it apologize for past behaviour including support for Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran, and that it end sanctions. And he noted that U.S. backing of Israel was not “a friendly gesture.”

This was a predictable response. Until serious negotiations begin, both sides will continue to reiterate how the other should change.

The most pressing issue, which has led to the tightening of sanctions against Iran in recent years, is the nuclear one. And here there are certainly no signs of any change in the U.S. position. Gordon Brown’s speech on Tuesday at Lancaster House in London, repeated the demand, shared with the U.S., that Iran suspend or even end its uranium enrichment, the most sensitive part of its nuclear programme.

Brown acknowledged Iran’s “absolute right to a civil nuclear programme,” but he did so in the context of its Bushehr reactor, built with Russia. This, he said, was as an appropriate means for it to realize its “absolute right.”

Brown knows perfectly well that Russia has itself enriched the uranium for Bushehr and will subsequently remove the spent nuclear fuel – and that therefore Tehran does not see Bushehr as an alternative to its own enrichment of uranium in a self-sufficient atomic programme. Indeed, Iran has never wavered in its insistence that it has the right not just to a nuclear programme but one in which it enriches its own uranium.

Although Tehran did suspend enrichment during talks with the European Union between 2003 and 2005, it made clear this was temporary, what Iran called a “good will gesture” and what its enemies and critics called playing for time.

But Iranian officials at that time made repeated references to their willingness to compromise. Various accounts surfaced – from both Tehran and from European diplomats – of discussions of a compromise in which Iran would agree to limit, but not to end, its uranium enrichment. In other words, Iran would restrict the number of centrifuges it used for the enrichment process to what was called “laboratory level” enrichment. This would be done under full UN inspection, including the snap-inspection system of the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (Iran has not implemented the protocol since 2006, when the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency referred it to the UN security council).

The beauty of the idea – it was never officially formulated – is that it would allow the Iranian leadership to claim “victory” because the west would have recognized its “absolute” right to nuclear technology.

But it would also impose limits on Iran’s programme, which today continues to expand, and it would bring the programme under far closer UN supervision.

Iran’s critics – especially in the American right and in Israel – would resist such an agreement on the grounds that it accepts Iran’s mastery of enrichment technology. They point out, quite rightly, that the same methods used to enrich for energy can be used to manufacture a bomb.
But sooner or later, if Barack Obama is serious about engaging Iran, he will have to decide whether he is prepared for such a compromise over the nuclear issue.

He may well decide that other areas offer a better earlier chance of progress: co-operation over Afghanistan and Iraq, where the two sides have clear common interests, is the obvious choice.
Obama may have already decided that some kind of engagement with Syria, even if it leads nowhere, can deliver a “peace process” that itself seems like a foreign policy success. He may also have already decided to leave any real initiative over Tehran until after June’s presidential election, which may help clarify the balance of internal forces in Iran.

But if engagement is really to succeed, Obama will sooner or later have to grasp the nuclear nettle.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

Straight Talk

March 11, 2009

Robert Wood
Acting Department Spokesman
Daily Press Briefing

Excerpt

QUESTION: Iran.

MR. WOOD: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION:
Can you talk about the discussions about a letter that possible President – that President Obama could be sending – considering sending to Ayatollah Khamenei in Iran as a possible overture to engage Iran?

MR. WOOD:
I don’t have anything about any possible letter, but that would be something that I’d refer you to the White –

QUESTION:
Well, there were some diplomats that briefed reporters over the last week that said that the Administration has kind of told the Europeans that one of the things that you’re considering in terms of your efforts to engage Iran is possibly – the way you would do that is to send a letter to President Khamenei – sorry, Ayatollah Khamenei.

MR. WOOD:
Look, you know we have a policy review underway on Iran, and –

QUESTION:
Is that one of the options being –

MR. WOOD:
Well, I’m not going to talk about options that are being discussed within that review. But with regard to some type of presidential letter, that’s something that would have to come out of the White House. I’m not aware of it.

QUESTION:
Well, this Administration never responded to President Ahmadinejad’s letter to President Obama congratulating him.

MR. WOOD:
As I said, there is a review on Iran policy underway. I don’t have anything more for you on that, Elise.

QUESTION:
Well, I mean, clearly you are looking for ways to engage Iran.

MR. WOOD:
Absolutely. We have said that.

QUESTION:
Could this be a possible –

MR. WOOD:
I just don’t want to get into a discussion of those ways that we may or may not be planning to engage Iran.

QUESTION:
Well, the first time this came up several weeks ago, both you from this building, and the White House from the White House building denied that there was any letter that was under consideration, and said that no one had been instructed to draft such a letter, and today it seems a little different. What’s the scoop?

MR. WOOD:
I’m not saying anything differently. I’m just saying to you that there is an Iran policy review underway, and I’d leave it at that.

QUESTION:
Well, but why can’t you say the same thing that you said before when this was first – this first bubbled up?

MR. WOOD:
I don’t want to. I don’t want to. (Laughter.)

QUESTION:
Well, that’s telling.

QUESTION:
I mean, if you’re denying that it wasn’t true then, you’re not denying that it isn’t true now.

MR. WOOD:
I’m just saying to you that there is a policy review underway with regard to Iran, and that’s how I’ve been answering those questions. I don’t want to discuss, you know, letters, policy ideas that have been floated; I don’t think that’s useful. I think once we have completed our review, we’ll be able to enunciate our policies, and then you’ll have – we’ll be able to answer a lot of your questions.

Dear Mahmoud

January 2, 2009


By HOOMAN MAJD
The Huffington Post

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s congratulatory letter to President-elect Barack Obama, the first of its kind in the thirty-year history of the Islamic Republic, has so far gone unanswered. President-elect Obama has understandably been busy with filling cabinet and sub-cabinet posts, as well trying to figure out what on earth he’s going to do with the various messes he’s inherited (including the Bush administration’s jaw-dropping position on the situation in Gaza, an aerial bombardment with American-made F-18s and hellfire missiles that has killed hundreds of Palestinians and has handed yet another PR coup to would-be terrorists the world over), so it’s not surprising that writing a thank you note to Mahmoud has not been on the top of his to-do list.

Obama’s advisors may have suggested that replying to the Iranian president will only strengthen his position in the run-up to the Iranian presidential elections of June 2009, and there may be some truth to that. However, it is also true that, much as when Lee Bolinger, the President of Columbia University, insulted Ahmadinejad before he delivered his speech there in 2007, the majority of Iranians will take a lack of response as an insult not just to Ahmadinejad (who some may even loathe as much as ordinary Americans), but as an insult to Iran, and Ahmadinejad’s position could just as easily be strengthened with Iranians rallying behind their leader (as they generally did in support of him after the Columbia debacle), as it could be weakened by a lack of response.

President-elect Obama’s foreign policy team should carefully consider how the Iranian people, as well as their government, will react to either an acknowledgment of Ahmadinejad’s outreach or the insult of complete silence. Given that in almost every foreign policy issue that Obama will face at the end of January 2009 Iran will figure prominently; whether it is Iraq, Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinian-Israeli issue, or Iran’s actual nuclear program; a response (or lack of one) to Iran’s president is of far more importance than one might ordinarily think, for either choice will set the tone for future negotiations, something Obama has promised throughout his campaign. (For example, even if Ahmadinejad is not re-elected president next year and a more moderate “reformer” is, that reformer or “pragmatist” will have a very hard time convincing the hard-line conservatives, who will continue to have the Supreme Leader’s ear, that the U.S. is ready to enter into negotiations on the basis of mutual respect.)

Should President-elect Obama decide to write to Mahmoud, his message need not contain anything he’s uncomfortable with. In fact, even using the language of diplomacy (and not the language of Lee Bollinger), it can still raise the issue of discomfort with Iranian rhetoric and question her intentions. (Iranians can handle it, and believe me, their skins aren’t any thinner than Americans’.) But with respect to the Iranian president’s letter, the Obama team must take into consideration the centuries old customs and manners of proud culture, which requires an acknowledgment of some sort, even if laced with criticism. Perhaps it might read something like this?

Dr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
President, Islamic Republic of Iran

I am in receipt of your congratulatory letter of November 5, 2008. I appreciate the sentiments you’ve expressed on behalf of your nation; an ancient land with a great culture that has contributed much to civilization as we know it.

As you are aware, during my campaign I repeatedly said that I would be prepared, as president, to talk to leaders of nations that the United States has disagreements (or even conflict) with, and I intend to follow through with my pledge at the appropriate time. I will take this opportunity, however, to express my deep concern with much of the rhetoric, bellicose rhetoric emanating from Tehran, that serves no purpose other than to further divide our two nations and to unfortunately isolate yours.

As I have repeatedly said, I have been deeply troubled by not just Iran’s nuclear program, but also its support of terrorist groups and the language Iranian officials use with respect to Israel, a U.S. ally. In addition, your questioning of the Holocaust, an undisputed historical fact, is also not only deeply offensive to me and other Americans, but hurtful to the many Americans who are either survivors (or descendants of both survivors and victims) of that human tragedy.

It is still my hope, as I have publicly expressed it, that with a vigorous pursuit of diplomacy on both sides, the U.S. and Iran will find a way to peacefully resolve their differences in the coming years.

Barack Hussein Obama
President-elect of the United States of America

Hooman Majd is the author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ.

More of the same

November 19, 2008

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By JASON REZAIAN
Tehran Bureau | comment

News this week that Hillary Clinton is a top candidate for secretary of state in the Obama administration should be shocking — or not, if you prescribe to the “more of the same” philosophy about American politics.

The thought of it is extremely disappointing and makes one wonder what that move would do for U.S.-Iran relations.

When I first visited the foreign policy page of the President-elect’s Website, Iran was the first issue discussed. At the time I thought it was a bold move to place that at the top of his public agenda. In less than two weeks it’s slipped, or should I say been re-assigned, to third, after Afghanistan and Pakistan and Nuclear Weapons. Clearly Iran has much to do with those two countries and world fears about proliferation, but how Iran fits into the new administration’s plans is the issue.

Furthermore, by choosing Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, who will be the people advising the State Department on Iran? Will it be someone from among the Iranian self-congratulators, or perhaps an Ahmad Chalabi type who uses disinformation to get us to intervene in Iran?

Whoever it is, we’d like to know, because it will have a huge bearing on how supportive we can be of any “new” Iran policy.

The cartoon was originally published on Truthdig.com.

Reality check, anyone

November 12, 2008

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By JASON REZAIAN
| Tehran Bureau Comment

SAN FRANCISCO — I’m as excited as everyone about Obama’s victory, but as far as U.S. -Iran relations go, I think we must wait and see. Furthermore, as citizens of both countries, we need to take some responsibility in how it will unfold. Ascribing mythical status to any leader, before his reign even begins, is dangerous. Iranians should know that better than anyone.

It’s generally accepted now that although the two nations need each other badly they won’t talk under their current leaderships. It’s natural then that as observers with a vested interest in reconciliation we see signs of hope. The truth is, though, that we’ve seen similar signs before and while bestowing Shiite symbolism upon Obama may be popular right now, it is supremely unfair and can only backfire. It’s the kind of simple thinking that has gotten people in trouble for eons.

Most will laugh at the idea, but after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, some Iranians likened George W. Bush to the Hidden Twelfth Imam, or the Mahdi, wondering when he would make the order to “liberate” Iran from the mullahs. Of course now they say it was all a joke, but this was a theme I heard often between 2001 and early 2003.

Finding a populace that is more pro-American than the people of Iran, especially in terms of culture, values and sociability is difficult. In the face of thirty years of harsh talk against their government by the U.S., often spilling into demonizing the people, Iranians have always maintained a strong respect and admiration for all things American. In my more recent trips to Iran, especially since the U.S. intervention in Iraq began to fail, I’ve seen a skepticism developing that I never experienced before.

As elated as many people in Iran I’m sure were upon Obama’s election, if we are going to be honest about it, has little bearing on the day to day existence of the average Iranian: inflation and unemployment are still soaring, and while they’d like to see a different form of government, they’re too busy figuring out ways to feed their families. What goes on in Washington is an abstract idea that only the privileged can stop and ponder.

The kind of hyperbole the media is attaching to Obama’s election doesn’t help anyone. It will only serve to disappoint in the long run.

From my perspective the one immediate thing that Obama’s election succeeds in doing is breaking the idea that the U.S. government is under the ruthless grip of a cabal of old white men. Many in Iran, and for that matter the rest of the world (including right here in the U.S.), have long held that belief and this should go a long way to waking people up to the fact that the American system, when people participate, can work.

Still, for any real dialog to take place between the two governments it will have to happen in an air of mutual respect; unfortunately these two nations have distorted and inflated self-images. Ahmadinejad’s letter, for example, is designed in such a way that no American president would ever respond to it the way the writer wants. There’s a heavy-handed, “strings attached” approach that both governments are famous for, and no matter what kind of name the U.S. president has, nor what color skin, until the leaders are able to display the kind of hospitality and civility their people are known for, our dialog will remain between us: the people of the two nations.

Despite limited direct contact, Iranians and Americans have for years had their own dialog in the face of their governments’ opposition. We meet online, some of us financially support Iranians or make purchases for them here in the U.S., and we travel back and forth sharing personal insights about the other.

While President Khatami famously hoped to start a dialog among civilizations, the idea that this is achieved at the state level undermines the work that thousands of people in Iran and the United States have been doing for years to promote friendly, people-to-people dialog between the two societies. Both heads of state would be wise to take a cue from their civilian populations and explore the commonalities, of which there are many, between the U.S. and Iran before we try to settle our differences.

Ahmadinejad’s letter to Obama

November 10, 2008

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Here is a copy of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s letter to the President-elect. Caveat: The file I got was a scanned (image) file, so using “OCR” (Optical Character Recognition) we turned it into a Rich Text Format to be able to cut and paste. There may have been several errors in the scanning process.

Unofficial Translation

Islamic Republic of Iran
President

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

His Excellency, Barak H. Obama
President-Elect of the United States of America

I would like to offer my congratulations on your election by the majority of the American electorate. As you know, opportunities that are granted by the Almighty to human beings are inherently temporary, and can be used both in the Interest of nations for the betterment of mankind or – God forbid – In the path of wrongdoing and against humanity. I hope that you will be able to take fullest advantage of the opportunity to serve and leave behind a positive legacy by putting the real interest of people as well as equity and justice ahead and above the insatiable demands of a selfish and unworthy minority.

It is the general expectation that your administration will accord the highest priority in its policies and practices to addressing clearly and speedily the demand of the American people as well as the people across the globe for fundamental change in the domestic and foreign policies of the United States Government.

The American people, who have strong spiritual tendencies, expect that the full potential and capabilities of the Administration should be employed In order to serve the people, overcome the current economic crisis, recover their spirit and restore their dignity and hope, eradicate poverty and discrimination, respect human dignity, security and rights and strengthen the foundations of family across the territory of the United States: values which are all among the common teachings of Divine Prophets.

At the same time, the people across the world expect that policies and practices based on justice and respect for the rights of peoples and nations, coupled with friendship and non-Interference in the affairs of others replace policies founded on war, occupation, coercion, deception, intimidation of nations, and Imposition of unequal and discriminatory bilateral and global relations; policies and practices that have enraged all nations and many governments against the US Administration and tainted the image of the American people.

Particularly, It is expected that the unjust practices of the past six decades in the sensitive Middle East region are reversed in order to achieve the full restoration of the legitimate rights of nations, specially the aggrieved nations of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The great civilization-building and Justice-seeking Iranian nation would welcome real, equitable and fundamental change in policies and practices, particularly towards this region.

If the path of righteousness and the teachings of Divine Prophets are followed, it is hoped that the Almighty will help and the Immense losses of the past will be somewhat remedied.

May the Almighty bestow His blessings of well-being, health, honor and prosperity upon all peoples and nations; and may He bless the leaders of societies with the courage to learn from the mistakes of predecessors, and the ability to use every opportunity to serve the people, obey His commandments, eradicate oppression and coercion and promote empathy, compassion and justice.

Mahmood Ahmadinejad

Iranians rejoice over Obama win

November 9, 2008

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By FARIBA PAJOOH
Tehran Bureau /correspondent

TEHRAN — News of Barack Hussein Obama’s victory was met with elation here. Among the youth, I would say the reaction was as strong as it was on 9/11, when thousands of Iranians poured into Mohseni Square to express their sympathy with the American people. This was the second such reaction, on this grand a scale, to something that had happened in the United States.

No one took to the streets. But emotions seemed to run just as high. Many Iranians — not just government officials — followed the campaign religiously. Some here mistakenly believe Obama gets to run the show, unchecked. They think he will be able to call the shots on each of the major issues facing the United States. They think everyone will follow in one voice, perhaps deviating only on a tactic here and there.

Still, Obama is seen in a class by himself.

Faraidoun runs a grocery store in east Tehran and knows just about everyone in the neighborhood. He spends a lot of time chatting and discussing issues with customers, from the astronomical rise in food prices to politics. He has his opinions.

Before the U.S. election, he said Obama will never become president. “They won’t let him,” he said. “Power is in the hands of whites and Jews in the United States and they won’t let a black man in the White House.”

Today he says Nov. 4, 2008, was like 2 Khordad 1376 in Iran (May 23, 1997, when Mohammad Khatami was elected president). “It’s not what they wanted,” he says, “but it happened.”

Persian-language media and international websites had a larger audience in Iran in the months leading to the election. Among them, Hamid Reza, who is a member of the Islamic Republic’s armed forces. He’s quite pleased with the outcome. He and his colleagues followed the election on an English-language website at work. “We kept score minute by minute, state by state,” he says. “When Obama hit the 270 mark my colleagues and I screamed with joy.”

Why such enthusiasm?

“I think he’ll bring about many changes,” says Hamid Reza. “But to tell you the truth, my colleagues’ support for Obama has a strong emotional component. It’s because he’s black. Perhaps much of this unprecedented support in Iran for Obama has its roots in race. We are influenced by traditional and religious teachings in our culture. Because of that we feel a deep kinship with ‘the innocent.’ We deem Obama as an innocent. Most Iranians tend to rally around the oppressed and disadvantaged. Obama has had many disadvantages to overcome.”

Nahid is a retired mathematics teacher. To her, Obama’s skin color signifies something else. “The fact that a black person couldn’t vote in that country just a few decades ago speaks volumes of the American people and is an indication of just how much they’ve advanced as a nation in that time. Racism is on the wane, democracy is on the rise.”

“This was a testament to the American people,” she continued. “Yes, he is black. His name and family relations have some connection to Islam. And they voted for him anyway!”

Obama’s victory has an economical dimension as well. Its reverberations could be felt in the Great Bazaar of Tabriz (in northwest Iran). Mohammad Ali is a successful merchant trading in silk rugs. He too is excited by Obama’s win. “I hope it stimulates the global market,” he said. “In the past few weeks, our exports have declined even more than usual.”

Though it appears many Iranians were rooting for Obama, John McCain wasn’t without his supporters here. Baran is an activist who has been following the campaign closely for the past two years. “If I were American, I too would have voted for Obama,” she says. “But I’m Iranian and Obama’s foreign policy is most important to me. Obama favors negotiations. But to negotiate on a very high level you have to be well versed in international relations. And that’s just the kind of experience he lacks.”

She continued: “Senator McCain had the necessary foreign policy experience, but Americans chose someone who could improve their tarnished image in the world.”

An Iranian reporter said she believed the conservatives in Iran would have preferred a McCain victory to maintain the status quo, “to keep the two sides at odds with each other, and to use this tension for domestic gain.”

But alas, it’s Obama who has reached the White House. Even as certain groups were marking the 29th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran with celebrations, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was sending a letter of congratulations to President-elect Barack Obama.

An Iranian president congratulating an American President? Perhaps change is really under way.