Saturday, March 21, 2009

Obama Lightens the Mood; Peres Spoils the Mood; Khamenei Wants Substance

Obama told Iran that it cannot "take its rightful place in the community of nations...through terror or arms."

Does this mean that Obama is very delicately signalling Iran that Israeli terror campaigns against the people of Gaza are to be ended or that the U.S. fleet will be removed from the Persian Gulf or that the U.S. is withdrawing the Bush threat of "all options on the table" and guaranteeing to prevent an Israeli nuclear attack on Iran? Those are perhaps the most obvious moves that Washington would make if it indeed wanted to implement a policy of giving nations their "rightful" places in the community of nations without the use of "terror" or "arms."

Obama should be given a (small) pat on the back for moving away from the egregiously insulting attitude of the Bush Administration toward Iran, though Obama has not, to my knowledge, apologized for Bush's "axis of evil" slap in the face or even officially stated that his administration rejects that statement. So Obama really has not even completely washed away the superficially disrespectful behavior of his predecessor. All he has done is respond in kind to Ahmadinejad's recent statment calling for "mutual respect."

So it can hardly come as a surprise that Khamenei responded by saying Iran was waiting for substance.
In contrast to the biased treatment of Khamenei's remarks by AP, Khamenei did not "rebuff" Obama. Rather, Khamenei quite reasonably noted that Iran was looking for an end to U.S. hostility toward Iran. He said:

We have no experience with the new American government and the new American president. We will observe them and we will judge. If you change your attitude, we will change our attitude.

What could be more reasonable? He might well have asked why, if Washington rejects terror and arms as the way to be part of the community of nations, Washington supported Israel's vicious attack on Gaza and opposes Iranian economic aid for the people of Gaza. He might well have asked why the U.S. has so many military ships in the Persian Gulf that they cannot even get through the entrance without running into each other. He might well have asked why the U.S. opposes the delivery of Russian defensive missiles to Iran, as though Washington wanted the option of attacking a defenseless Iran.

Khamenei did directly address the terrorism issue, stating that U.S. support for an anti-Iranian insurgency based in Pakistan "is still continuing" and recalling the U.S. shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane in 1988.

Since U.S. support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians is a key issue on which Tehran wants to see change, and Iranian support for those Palestinians is a key issue on which Washington wants to see change, it is also worth noting how Washington's "friends" in Israel supported Obama's attempt to change the tone of U.S.-Iranian relations. Copying Obama, Israeli President Peres also sent a greeting to Iran, but one calculated to ruin Obama's new tone, calling them "religious fanatics" and observing that "the Iranian nation will topple these leaders."

If, as Washington decision-makers like to say, "all options are on the table," then here are a few options Obama might consider:

  • he might apologize for the U.S. coup in 1953 that destroyed the Iranian democratic movement;
  • he might state that the U.S. opposes nuclear war and will hold to account any country that starts one;
  • he might state that the U.S. will not under any circumstances be the first to launch nuclear weapons;
  • he might take a hard look at U.S. policy toward the various activists/insurgents/criminal gangs/terrorists operating in Pakistan's Baluchistan;
  • he might think about how many naval vessels the U.S. really needs to keep in the Persian Gulf.
Obama might also reject the Peres remarks, which harken back to the most negative rhetorical flourishes of Bush and Ahmadinejad.

Khamenei's expression of willingness to change is an open door. He was referring only to attitude, but from attitude, all things follow. Obama should call his bluff, start changing substantive policy, and see where it leads.

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