Obama’s Nowruz Address: not “appeasement,” not a Kumbayah moment

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

James Besser in Washington

Predictably, President Barack Obama’s conciliatory Nowruz message to the Iranian people has produced fierce reaction on both sides of the debate over Iran policy.


Obama talked about Iran’s “great civilization”; he addressed the country as the “Islamic Republic,” something the Bush administration, which considered the government an illegitimate regime, declined to do.  “Regime change” seemed far from the earnest Obama’s mind as he turned his oratorical charms on the Iranians.

Conservative outposts like The American Thinker saw in the video message the “appeasement” they predicted all along.

The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol criticized the fact that the speech included “no reiteration of the demand–heretofore the position not just of the United States but of its European allies–that Iran stop its program for developing nuclear weapons in return for such constructive ties.”

Jewish doves saw an almost miraculous transformation in American policy.  IPF blogger M.J. Rosenberg called the video message a “stunner” and a mortal blow to the neoconservatives who see more confrontation and maybe war with Iran.

In fact, the Nowruz message offers only limited hints of what the new administration’s Iran policy will be – beyond Obama’s broad campaign trail promises.

We already knew he would seek a less bellicose and confrontational style as he probed for diplomatic openings for engagement with Tehran.  At the same time, he talked during the campaign about both carrots and sticks.

The fact is that the details of the administration’s Iran policy are not set because its Iran team, under the direction of former Mideast negotiator Dennis Ross, is still not in place.  When it is, Ross and Co. will conduct a sweeping reevaluation of U.S. policy.

Ross, whose last gig was for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank created by AIPAC, is hardly a left winger. Writing in Newsweek in January, he said that “Iran has continued to pursue nuclear weapons because the Bush administration hasn’t applied enough pressure—or offered Iran enough rewards for reversing course.”

He went on: “The way to achieve such pressure is to focus less on the United Nations and more on getting the Europeans, Japanese, Chinese and Saudis to cooperate. The more Washington shows it’s willing to engage Iran directly, the more these other parties, will feel comfortable ratcheting up the pressure.”

And this from Ross: “Sharp sticks, of course, must be balanced by appetizing carrots. We need to offer political, economic and security benefits to Tehran, on the condition that Iran change its behavior not just on nukes but on terrorism as well.”

In other words, offer gestures of reconciliation and friendship – and respect for their civilization and, yes, even their status as an “Islamic republic”  — as an essential part of assembling effective international coalitions to pressure Iran.

Obama’s Nowruz message is undoubtedly part of that recalibration of U.S. diplomacy. Appeasement? Unlikely. The “kumbayah”  moment longed for by the left? Don’t count on it. Details to follow.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.