John V. Whitbeck / San Francisco Chronicle & Gwynne Dyer / Arab News – 2009-03-24 22:55:14
Happy New Year, Iran: President Obama’s Message to Iran
John V. Whitbeck / San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO (March 23, 2009) — On the occasion of the Persian New Year, President Obama videotaped a personal statement to the Iranian people that is being portrayed in the Western media as a significant change, in both tone and substance, in American policy and an effort to reach out to Iran. Reading the principal substantive portion cited below, however, one must have serious doubts that it will be viewed in this light by many Iranians.
“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. 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.”
One may well agree that improving relations between the two countries “will not be advanced by threats,” but who has been threatening whom? Has Iran been threatening a preventive (i.e., unprovoked and aggressive) attack on the United States? Has Iran been insisting that military action remains on the table if the United States does not bow to Iranian demands?
One may also agree that no country’s “rightful place in the community of nations” should be reached “through terror or arms.” Yet it is the United States that brought shock and awe (the American marketing term for terror when unleashed by the United States) to the region six years ago this month, and it is the United States that spends more on arms than the rest of the world combined.
One may also agree that the “true greatness” of a country is demonstrated through “peaceful actions.” Iran has not invaded another country in more than two centuries. The same can scarcely be said of the United States.
One may, finally, agree that “greatness is not the capacity to destroy.” America has, most recently, destroyed Iraq and applauded the destruction of Gaza, and, for decades, it has possessed enough nuclear weapons to destroy life on Earth many times over. Its capacity and proclivity for destruction shape its unique “place in the community of nations.”
This peculiar effort to reach out to Iranians, which any rational Iranian who actually heard or read the words could be expected to view as condescending and insulting, is logically consistent with the line in Obama’s inaugural address in which he offered an outstretched hand to unspecified Muslims (subsequently identified as Iranians) if they would unclench their fist. Who has been brandishing a clenched fist at whom?
It is entirely possible that Obama has, in his own eyes, been trying to reach out to Muslims in general and Iranians in particular (except, of course, in respect to any matter relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). However, the words and concepts used in his efforts continue to reflect the blind self-righteousness and myopic obliviousness to reality and the way others might perceive America, the world and their own place in it so characteristic of his predecessor.
This is troubling, because the window of opportunity to build a better relationship between the West and the Muslim world and to prevent yet another unnecessary and potentially even more catastrophic war in the greater Middle East may not be open for long.
Particularly because Obama is a man of intelligence, a more cynical and sinister interpretation of this public show of reaching out must also be considered. After the Iraq debacle, further wars of aggression are a hard sell.
If military action (Israeli, American or combined) against Iran really does remain on the table (and Obama, who could have taken it off the table, has not chosen to do so), it will be essential to persuade American and Western peoples that the United States has gone the extra mile toward reaching out for a peaceful resolution of its dispute with Iran – and been irrationally repulsed, thereby conclusively demonstrating Iran’s evil intentions and justifying military action against it.
In this scenario, the videotaped statement might be explained by the fact that it is actually addressed to the American people and other Western interests (who would be unlikely to find anything jarring in it) rather than the Iranian people.
Dennis Ross, recently named as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s special adviser on Iran, is publicly on the record as favoring a brief but visibly intensified diplomatic effort to persuade Iran to bow to Israeli/American demands – which would, inevitably and necessarily, be unsuccessful – before proceeding on to the attack on Iran that he deems essential to protect Israel’s security interests.
If Ross recommended that Obama celebrate the Persian New Year in this peculiar manner (or even wrote the statement read by the president), the cynical and sinister view may, unfortunately, be the more realistic one.
John V. Whitbeck, an international lawyer, is author of “The World According to Whitbeck.”
© 2009 Hearst Communications Inc.
Note from John V. Whitbeck
The opinion article transmitted below, by experienced Middle East commentator Gwynne Dyer, evidences that I am not alone in actually reading Barack Obama’s statement obstensibly addressed to Iran and the Iranian people and in recognizing how insulting it would be in Iranian eyes.
While there was a limit to how many jarring notes I could cite in my own necessarily brief opinion article, three others are worth considering:
• 1. Obama stated that the United States wants Iran “to take its rightful place in the community of nations” — subject, of course, to certain requirements which he went on to cite. This suggests that the the “community of nations” (which may may or may not be the same thing as the invariably pro-Western “international community”) is some sort of club for which the United States acts as admissions committee or bouncer and for which membership requires being acceptable to the United States.
I doubt very much that Iranians view their country as a pariah state whose behavior excludes it from membership in any “community of nations”. The code term by which the Iranian leadership frequently identifies the United States without naming it is “international arrogance”. This is another good example.
• 2. Dyer refers to the statement’s “soft soap about the wonders of Iranian culture”. One must assume that few Iranians would swoon with pleasure at having their millennias-old culture complimented by those whom they must surely view as relatively tasteless and tacky nouveaux riches.
• 3. More substantively, the assumption to which most of the insults in the statement are tied is that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. This means that Obama, like Bush before him, has rejected the unanimous view on this subject of the 16 American intelligence agencies in favor of the view propagated by Israel’s intelligence services.
One might logically wonder why, this being the case, the United States should continue, in times of financial stringency, to spend over $50 billion per year on its own “intelligence community”. Why not simply shut it down and rely on the Israelis?
So, what was the genesis of this bizarre show of “reaching out” to Iran? My guess — and it can only be a guess, based on job descriptions and time available — is that Dennis Ross, who has his own well-known agenda, wrote the statement and suggested that Obama videotape it and that Obama (who has many other things on his mind) read the statement, thought that this seemed like a good idea and did as suggested.
If so, this ploy has clearly had the desired effect — at least from the standpoint of Ross and his fellow Israel-Firsters. The Western media and many Western political leaders have praised Obama for his extraordinarily friendly and generous initiative and made clear that the ball is now in the Iranian court to reciprocate, while the Iranians, understandably, are feeling insulted (yet again) and have their back up.
Meanwhile, Binyamin Netanyahu has made abudantly clear that, if the United States does not act to take out Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program or potential during the course of 2009, Israel will.
Happy New Year, Iran!
Reposted with the permission of the author.
The Wrong Way to Reopen Contacts
Gwynne Dyer / Arab News
You have to admire Barack Obama’s attempt to reopen the lines of communication with Iran — but you don’t have to admire it much. Iran’s real leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was certainly not impressed: “Our nation cannot be talked to like this. In the same congratulatory message they (the Obama administration) accuse the Iranian nation of supporting terrorism, pursuing nuclear arms, and such things. What has changed?”
Not much, it would seem. Amidst all the soft soap about the wonders of Iranian culture that took up most of President Obama’s message to Iranians last week, what stood out was his remark that while Iran should take its “rightful place in the community of nations… that place cannot be reached through terror or arms.” The measure of Iran’s greatness, he added, is not “the capacity to destroy”.
This is a subtler restatement of the same accusations that the Bush administration has been making for years: that Iran supports terrorism by providing arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories, and that it is secretly working on nuclear weapons. To Iranian ears, he sounds like George W. Bush with better manners.
This is a pity, because he is more than that. He has dropped the Bush policy of threatening to attack Iran (“all options are on the table”), at least so long as his administration is committed to the current track of diplomacy. He has also effectively blocked an Israeli attack, since Israel would not do that without Washington’s permission. The world is already a safer place.
But most Iranians do not accept these accusations as legitimate, and they are sick of hearing them. So forget for a moment the almost universal assumption in the Western media that they are true, and consider the evidence.
Iran certainly does supply weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which are defined by the US State Department as “terrorist organizations.” But then the US State Department also defined Nelson Mandela as a terrorist for his support of armed confrontation with apartheid — yet it mysteriously failed to call Ronald Reagan a terrorist when he armed the “contras” against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
Hamas and Hezbollah are deeply unattractive organizations, but then so are most other nationalist movements fighting foreign occupation. In the former British Empire alone, Irgun in Palestine, Mau Mau in Kenya, EOKA in Cyprus and the IRA in Northern Ireland all employed brutal terrorism in their struggles — but their leaders all ended up having tea with the British queen. And Yasser Arafat of the PLO ended up on the White House lawn shaking hands with Yitzhak Rabin.
As the political leader of Hamas, Khaled Mishaal, said in response to Barack Obama’s speech, official US contact with his movement is only “a matter of time.” In fact, the diplomatic feelers are already out, although it will be some time before Washington admits it.
In 2006 Hamas won the only really free and fair election ever held by the Palestinians, and today it governs a well-defined tract of territory, the Gaza Strip (albeit one under permanent siege by Israel). Hezbollah has seats in the Lebanese Parliament, and is part of the country’s “National Unity” government. Supporting them puts Iran in direct opposition to current US policy, but it does not make it a “terrorist” state.
As for the nuclear weapons allegations, who knows? Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Iran has signed, member states may develop the full nuclear fuel cycle. Indeed, they can even get help from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), so long as they accept close inspection to ensure that they do not enrich the nuclear fuel from 20 percent pure (good enough for reactors) to 90 percent pure (“weapons-grade”).
Iran has basically abided by those rules, but the major Western powers distrust its intentions. That’s why they moved the case from the IAEA to the United Nations Security Council, a political body where they can just declare Iran a threat to the peace and demand that it stop doing what the NPT says it is free to do, provided the safeguards are observed: Enriching nuclear fuel.
Given all the excited talk, you’d think there must be some proof of Iran’s alleged plan to make nuclear weapons, but in fact there is none. Indeed, a National Intelligence Estimate issued in November 2007 by the 16 US intelligence agencies stated flatly that Iran was not currently pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
In a more recent assessment earlier this month Dennis Blair, US director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: “Although we do not know whether Iran currently intends to develop nuclear weapons, we assess Tehran, at a minimum, is keeping open the option to develop them.” That is a fair assessment of the reality — and it is perfectly legal for Iran to keep its options open in that way.
Iran is not a rogue state. It is an unusual country, partly democratic but ultimately under the rule of religious leaders whose world view is very different from that of most other people. But that does not mean that they are “mad mullahs”, or bent on national suicide via nuclear war. Barack Obama is right to try to restart a conversation that has been suspended for far too long, but he needs to back up and start again.
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