Thoughts on the Obama-Khamenei exchange

Thoughts on the Obama-Khamenei exchange

I wasn’t able to follow the fallout from Obama’s message to Iran in much detail while traveling, but the magic of the internet allowed me to catch up a bit this afternoon (Monday in Singapore). A few quick thoughts:

First, having called for a more accommodating and open approach to Iran, I can only applaud Obama’s New Year’s message. It showcased his strengths as a leader: confidence, a ready willingness to abandon failed policies, and an ability to see how things might look to the other side. If we follow up with clear, resolute, and disciplined diplomacy, and if we have the patience to realize that you don’t unwind thirty years of animosity overnight, we may succeed in defusing a serious problem, and maybe even turn Iran from an adversary into an asset over time.

Second, I though Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s response (given in a speech to a gathering at a shrine in Mashhad) was about what we should have expected, and not discouraging at all. Juan Cole has provided a translation on his website here, and I agree with his analysis here. Stripped of the somewhat harsh rhetoric, Khamenei was making the wholly sensible point that the key to changing the relationship lies in what each country does, not just what it says. After all, how would we respond if some adversary’s leader made a friendly speech? We would welcome the words but we’d make it clear that real change would depend on actions, which is essentially what Khamenei did. And I had to love this passage of Khamenei’s speech:

Regarding our vital issues, we are not sentimental. We do not make decisions based on emotion. We make decisions through calculation.

Who’d have thought that the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran was a realist? Well, me, but also someone like Trita Parsi, who knows a lot more about Iran than I do. And when you think about it, Khamenei’s response was a lot more encouraging than the U.S. reaction when Iran offered to negotiate a “grand bargain” with us back in June 2003. The Bush administration rejected the overture out of hand, and look where that got us.  

So I’d call this a good first step. But I’d remind everyone that this journey will be a long one, and if history is any guide, there will lots of opportunities for both sides to stumble.