- By Marya HannunMarya Hannun is a Ph.D. student in Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University. Follow her on Twitter at: @mrhannun.
On Monday, Barack Obama released a message to the Iranian people marking the beginning of Nowruz, an ancient holiday celebrating the start of the Persian New Year and the advent of spring. In a YouTube video with Farsi subtitles, the president offered a brief note of celebration before launching into the crux of his message: "the world’s serious and growing concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, which threatens peace and security in the region and beyond." He continued:
As I have every year as President, I want to take this opportunity to speak directly to the people and leaders of Iran. Since taking office, I have offered the Iranian government an opportunity — if it meets its international obligations, then there could be a new relationship between our two countries, and Iran could begin to return to its rightful place among the community of nations.
In past years, Obama’s annual Nowruz address has been regarded by some as a shining example of soft diplomacy and by others as a cynical case of political opportunism — but all have agreed that the president is seizing the moment to send a message to the Iranian people and government. Which raises the question: What about the millions of non-Iranians who also celebrate the holiday?
Foreign Policy caught up with Adil Baguirov, who serves on the board of directors of two D.C.-based advocacy organizations — the U.S. Azeris Network and the U.S. Turkic Network — that have repeatedly lobbied Obama to make his Nowruz address more inclusive and less politicized. "The Turkic people who number some 200 million spanning across Eurasia, from Yakutia to Europe, were once again overlooked" in this year’s message, he wrote in an e-mail.
But, he notes, this wasn’t always the case. Baguirov drew a pointed distinction with the Bush years, when the president would "congratulate not only all the Iranic people (people of Iran, Tajikistan, Afghanistan , and some people living in other regional countries, as well as the diaspora in U.S.), but all the Turkic people and diaspora that trace their heritage from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgysztan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as a multitude of autonomous regions in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, the Turcomans in Iraq, the Uzbeks and Hazara’s in Afghanistan, the Uighurs in China, and others."
In his 2006 Nowruz message, for example, Bush noted that for "millions of people around the world who trace their heritage to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Pakistan, India, and Central Asia, Nowruz is a celebration of life and an opportunity to express joy and happiness." (It’s worth noting that Bush focused a bit more on Iran in 2003, and devoted his entire 2002 address to Afghans and Afghan-Americans after the fall of the Taliban.)
Baguirov, for his part, said Obama’s approach is as if Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei spoke directly to the American people on Christmas or New Year’s Day. "Other countries, especially if they have been celebrating those holidays far longer, would be rather baffled and even offended by such preferential treatment," he pointed out.
Clearly, the Obama administration now sees Nowruz as a chance to address Washington’s increasingly fractious relationship with Tehran, and to reach out to and draw support from the Iranian people. Whether or not Iranians appreciate the gesture, it’s clear at least some other Nowruz celebrants don’t.