The Middle East Channel

Iranian New Year’s holiday presents dilemma for Obama

As the Obama administration’s engagement strategy with Iran hits a brick wall, the White House faces a ticklish decision: whether U.S. President Barack Obama should send greetings to Iran on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, on March 21. Last year, Obama used the holiday — a celebration of the vernal equinox that ...

As the Obama administration's engagement strategy with Iran hits a brick wall, the White House faces a ticklish decision: whether U.S. President Barack Obama should send greetings to Iran on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, on March 21.

Last year, Obama used the holiday -- a celebration of the vernal equinox that Iranians have observed since ancient times -- to seek "the promise of a new beginning" with a country that has bedeviled U.S. policymakers for three decades. He reached out to the Iranian people and, in a departure from Bush-era nomenclature, to the leaders of the "Islamic Republic of Iran," thus implicitly recognizing the legitimacy of the Iranian government and suggesting that the United States was not pursuing a policy of regime change.

Obama used last year's message, which was filmed and broadcast with Farsi subtitles, to lay out his vision for the future of the U.S.-Iranian relationship. "It's a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce," he said. "It's a future where the old divisions are overcome, where you and all of your neighbors and the wider world can live in greater security and greater peace."

As the Obama administration’s engagement strategy with Iran hits a brick wall, the White House faces a ticklish decision: whether U.S. President Barack Obama should send greetings to Iran on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, on March 21.

Last year, Obama used the holiday — a celebration of the vernal equinox that Iranians have observed since ancient times — to seek "the promise of a new beginning" with a country that has bedeviled U.S. policymakers for three decades. He reached out to the Iranian people and, in a departure from Bush-era nomenclature, to the leaders of the "Islamic Republic of Iran," thus implicitly recognizing the legitimacy of the Iranian government and suggesting that the United States was not pursuing a policy of regime change.

Obama used last year’s message, which was filmed and broadcast with Farsi subtitles, to lay out his vision for the future of the U.S.-Iranian relationship. "It’s a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce," he said. "It’s a future where the old divisions are overcome, where you and all of your neighbors and the wider world can live in greater security and greater peace."

A year later, U.S. officials are disappointed and frustrated by the lack of progress, particularly over Iran’s nuclear program.

"All we’ve gotten is one lousy meeting in Geneva," complains one official, referring to a 45-minute tête-à-tête on Oct. 1 between undersecretary of state Bill Burns and Saeed Jalili, the top Iranian nuclear negotiator.

After the meeting, the Americans said that Jalili had accepted in principle a plan to send out two-thirds of Iran’s stockpile of low enriched uranium for further processing by Russia and France. The fuel was to be returned for use in a Tehran reactor that produces medical isotopes. But the deal fell apart quickly in Iran’s poisonous political atmosphere, leading the United States and its allies to seek new sanctions against the country. Meanwhile, the Iranian domestic political scene has been transformed by popular protests following disputed presidential elections. Despite a ferocious crackdown, the "green movement" refuses to die, fueling renewed calls in Washington to abandon the diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program and shift to full-fledged support of Iran’s domestic opposition.

The White House had no immediate comment on whether Obama would send a Nowruz message this year, or what it would say.

A top aide to Mehdi Karroubi, one of three candidates who opposed incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June 12 vote, said Obama should send Nowruz greetings this year. However, he argued that the message should focus on human rights and commemorate the scores of Iranians — such as Neda Agha Soltan — who have been killed since June by plainclothes thugs, prison torturers, and government executioners.

"Increase the hopes of the Green Movement," said the aide, who asked not to be named for his protection. "Those people who have caused so much trouble for the Iranian people … will not be elected" if there were a freer vote, he said. U.S. officials have it backwards, he suggested: If the United States stressed human rights rather than the nuclear issue, the former will help achieve progress on the latter.

Barbara Slavin is author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation.

Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.  Twitter: @BarbaraSlavin1

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