President Obama has devoted a lot of time to foreign policy this past week, focusing like a laser beam on three countries that begin with the letter “I.” He gave star billing in Washington to the prime minister of Ireland (who was treated a lot better than British Prime Minister Gordon Brown), during the course of which each read the other’s prepared text, perhaps a new departure in international diplomacy. He also sent a letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano (a member of the now defunct Communist Party), expressing confidence that the United States and Italy would work together “to overcome the current global political and economic hardships and build a safer world.” The only problem with the letter was that the Italian president does not make policy; that power resides with the prime minister and his cabinet. Perhaps the White House czars have issued an ukaz stipulating that the American president writes only to his peers, and thus instead of addressing himself to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, President Obama wrote to a man who holds an almost entirely ceremonial position.
This imprecision produced the predictable kerfluffle in Rome, as the leftist media and intellectuals pondered the event and concluded that Obama had deliberately stiffed Berlusconi. The Italian prime minister thus joins his British counterpart in wondering what hope they are supposed to find in the recent change in diplomatic protocol in Washington.
Then the president turned his charm on the Iranian mullahs, releasing a video message to everyone celebrating Persian New Year, Norooz (or Nowrooz). He began by explaining the holiday to the Iranians:
“This holiday is both an ancient ritual and a moment of renewal, and I hope that you enjoy this special time of year with friends and family.”
If he was trying to make nice to the mullahs, he should have omitted the “ancient ritual” reference, since that ritual–featuring bonfires (symbols from the ancient Zoroastrian faith) through which people leap and around which they dance–is banned in Iran, and anyone who engages in the ancient ritual is subject to beatings, arrest, and torture. So, rather like the unfortunate “overcharge” button that Secretary of State Clinton gave the Russian foreign minister, the hoped-for change in our “relationship” with Iran got off to an unfortunate start.
The president continued with warm words for the Iranian people:
“Nowruz is just one part of your great and celebrated culture. Over many centuries your art, your music, literature and innovation have made the world a better and more beautiful place. “
True enough, but the whole idea of the Message to Iran was political, and he might have mentioned the long tradition of great and celebrated Persian political thought. After all, the first known human rights “document” came from Cyrus the Great, and its message is daily rejected by the regime of the Islamic Republic.
Then he provided his vision of the Iranian peoples’ belief in hope and change. “You will be celebrating your New Year in much the same way that we Americans mark our holidays,” he earnestly intoned, “by gathering with friends and family, exchanging gifts and stories, and looking to the future with a renewed sense of hope.”
NOT. Most Iranians look to the future with a deepening mood of despair. The mullahs have long since wrecked the economy, and things are getting worse now, what with the price of oil at one-third its recent highs. The single word that best describes the state of the Iranian people–to whom Obama explicitly directed these words–is “degradation.” The drop in Iranian birth rates during the reign of the mullahs is the most dramatic in the history of fertility statistics, and is now below replacement. The level of opiate addiction is five times that of China at the time of the Opium Wars. Any Iranian hearing the American president talk of renewed hope, would wonder if he was thinking of the Iranians in Beverly Hills, who rule the place.
To the country’s leaders, Obama offered still more hope for change: “We seek…engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.” I don’t know exactly what that means, except that the “conflict management” crowd insists that Iranian leaders want to be respected. My own view is that they want to be feared, but let’s move on.
“The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right…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.”
The mullahs no doubt loved the first sentence, not because of the happy thought about the “community of nations,” in which Iran’s leaders most assuredly do not believe (they want Islamic domination of the whole thing), but because you can read the phrase as a coded message that means “we’re not going to try to change the nature of the regime.” If so, it was a foolish concession, both because it condemns the Iranian people to continued oppression and misery, and because the very existence of America threatens the Islamic Republic. The Iranians would rather live like Americans, and despite thirty years of pathetic fecklessness from one president after the next, they still hope that the day will come when we rescue them–or at least help them rescue themselves–from the hated mullahcracy.
As for the president’s call for “peaceful actions,” it jars with the reality the mullahs have created. Nobody pays much attention to Iraq any more, but Coalition forces have arrested a considerable number of (Iranian) Quds Force officers there. Their mission was to kill as many Iraqis and Americans as possible, as they routinely confess to their interrogators. Incredibly, these killers are routinely released in a year or less, whereupon, like the terrorists at Guantanamo, they resume their murderous activities. They are now sponsoring a new tactic: exploding motorcycles. We’ve seen two already in recent weeks, and there will be more. And they’re fueling both Shi’ite and Sunni terrorists in Afghanistan.
So for Obama to say that Iran will only take its place as a major player if they embrace peace and abandon “terror or arms,” is nonsense. They have become a major player, at least on the American agenda, precisely because of terror and (nuclear) arms.
I suppose it’s possible that Obama thought that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nezhad would end the Islamic Republic’s thirty-year war against America, and sit down with him to define the details of Iran’s new status in world affairs. But they aren’t interested. The supreme leader gave Obama the back of his one good hand, starting with an important question: who is in charge in Obama’s Washington?
“We don’t know who is the real decision maker in America,” Khamenei wickedly responded, “the President or the Congress. But we underlined that the Iranians decide on the basis of definite calculations not on emotions.” And then, for the umpteenth time, he laid down the conditions for improved relations:
“Has your enmity with the Iranian nation ended? Have you released the Iranian assets or cut the sanctions? Have you quit negative propaganda against Iran? Have you ended your absolute support to the Zionist regime?” He even advised Obama to have his words translated, but not by “Zionist translators.”
In other words, Obama has to shut up about Iranian-supported terrorism, drop sanctions, release the Iranian money blocked in this country, and abandon Israel (oddly, this last condition does not seem to have been reported either in the New York Times–which ran an AP story–or the Washington Post. Probably they assumed we knew it already, so there was no reason to spend precious pennies on extra ink and newsprint). Happy New Year.
The most interesting part of Khamenei’s speech had to do with Iran, not the United States. More than half the speech dealt with internal matters, not international affairs. He warned darkly that the country was facing a severe internal crisis. He called for a campaign against “economic and social corruption,” and exhorted Iranians to fight the “disease of wasting,” stating, rather shockingly, that one-third of bread and one-fifth of water was currently being wasted. Thus, it is necessary to change the “pattern of consumption,” which Khamenei defined as both a religious and rational issue.
All of which brought him to the upcoming (June 12th) elections. Everybody must vote, he said (most Iranians have boycotted recent elections as a sign of contempt for the regime and its pretense of fair elections). He went out of his way to say that he would not endorse a single candidate, and that it was up to the people, not to him, to elect the next president. Then he added that, while he had felt it necessary to publicly support the government (meaning Ahmadi-Nezhad) on occasion, this should not be taken as an endorsement.
If I were Ahmadi-Nezhad, I would see this as a vote of no confidence from my boss. And you can be sure that many Iranians will see it the same way. The most interesting candidate is Mir Hossein Mousavi, the former prime minister (under Khomeini, during the Iran-Iraq War) who has been largely out of politics for twenty years. An artist and architect, Mousavi is an old “new face.” The Iranian version of Hope and Change, I suppose. Khamenei seems to like him (otherwise he’d endorse someone else), and perhaps, against all the odds, the internal situation is seen as so grave that even the supreme leader is willing to contemplate real change, and some small degree of freedom for the people.
One thing is for sure: having failed to gain Khamenei’s endorsement, Ahmadi-Nezhad’s best hope is support from Washington; that Obama makes unilateral concessions, thus demonstrating that the current Iranian policies are the right ones. The best American tactic at the moment is probably to shut up about “respect,” keep the Iranian terrorists in jail, step up the tempo of financial sanctions (Obama smartly renewed the existing ones a few days ago), and strike against the terror bases where the jihadis are trained and armed. That would further discredit Ahmadi-Nezhad, demonstrate that Obama’s velvet glove covers a mailed fist, and give hope for change to the Iranian people.
UPDATE: Jamie Kirchik at The New Republic has produced the video Obama should have. And Ron Radosh delivers another stern lesson to Roger Cohen, the New York Times’s candidate for the Walter Duranty 2009 award, bestowed on the journalist who has done most to advance the cause of tyranny.
Update 2: Obama won’t take no for an answer: “The President believes it’s time for that change, and regardless of any response, the President is hopeful that the Iranian leadership will work to change the way that they do business.”