- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is FP's Asia editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington, D.C. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, the BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
This is a guest post by Gabriel Max Scheinmann, a PhD student at Georgetown University and Visiting Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
Hallmark it ain’t. Yesterday President Obama gave his annual YouTube message marking Nowruz, the Persian new year. In a tradition begun by President Bush and used as an opportunity to directly address Iran, Obama’s four Nowruz greetings have symbolized the evolutions in the Administration’s policy, from a realpolitik message of respect and engagement with Iranian leaders to likening the regime to the Soviet Union and identification with the aspirations of freedom of the Iranian people. As Iranian behavior has become even more belligerent, Obama’s approach towards Tehran has increasingly resembled that of the Bush Administration that he so derided.
In his inaugural Nowruz message in 2009, Obama endeavored to "speak clearly to Iran’s leaders," praising the "shared hopes" and "common humanity that binds us together." He called for a "new beginning" in diplomatic relations, scrubbing any mention of the Iranian nuclear program or the regime’s oppression of its own citizens. He announced his administration’s commitment to diplomacy and foreswore the "sticks" approach of his predecessor, affirming that the "Islamic Republic of Iran" could yet "take its rightful place in the community of nations."
A year later, Obama somewhat shifted his message. The president again validated the legitimacy of the regime, by calling on the "leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran", and again offered to engage on "the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect." He even supported Iran’s leaders’ "right to peaceful nuclear energy." Following the regime’s repression of domestic protests after the fraudulent June 2009 presidential election, the president for the first time referenced the distressing state of civil liberties within Iran. However Obama ended his message much in the same way he had a year earlier, repeating that "our offer of comprehensive diplomatic contacts and dialogue stands."
Obama’s 2011 message marked a dramatic transformation in tone and substance. It’s the first time he spoke directly to the Iranian people, dropping the niceties of the "Islamic Republic of Iran." Perhaps slightly intoxicated with blooming Arab revolts, the president directly linked the uprisings in Tahrir Square to those in Tehran’s Azadi Square in June 2009, a couched call for Iranians to peacefully rise up and depose their own leaders. Asserting that the Iranian regime feared its own people, he concluded with a phrase that many Americans would associate with a certain Texan: "And though times may seem dark, I want you to know that I am with you."
Just yesterday, the president underwent his starkest transformation yet. Addressing solely the Iranian people and echoing Winston Churchill, he compared Iran to the Soviet Union by declaring that "because of the actions of the Iranian regime, an electronic curtain has fallen around Iran." Obama called for a dialogue between peoples, not governments, and, for the first time, mentioned U.S. sanctions against Iranian leaders. Once again, he highlighted the Iranian people, not the regime, as "the heirs to a great and ancient civilization" and declared that the regime’s responsibility to respect the rights of its people was as important as its commitments to the international community regarding its nuclear program. Although the president still offered the Iranian government a way out, Obama elevated the importance of the freedom of the Iranian people to that of the Iranian nuclear program and explicitly compared the Iranian regime to the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union.
In three short years, Obama’s Nowruz greetings, much like his Iran policy, have progressed back to those of the Bush Administration. By pledging himself to the Iranian people in their struggle against a Soviet-like regime, he borrowed President Bush’s final Nowruz message: "the reformers inside Iran are brave people, they’ve got no better friend than George W. Bush, and I ask for God’s blessings on them on their very important work."