US President Barack Obama’s Nowruz video message to “the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” on March 20 created quite a stir globally but it did not impress Iran’s leadership, its intended audience. The reasons are clear but first let us look at some of the positive aspects of Obama’s message. He is perhaps the first US president to address the country by its correct name: the Islamic Republic of Iran. He acknowledged Iran’s contribution to music, literature and innovation that “have made the world a better and more beautiful place.” Poetic words augmented by quoting the Persian poet, Sa‘adi, and concluding his message with the Farsi greeting, Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak! Obama also said his administration was “now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community.”
Nobody can fault him for trying to open a dialogue with the Islamic Republic or for choosing diplomacy over war, claiming to depart from his predecessor’s policies to address issues that divide the two countries but relations between countries are not based on mere words. There was nothing new in his statement that “for nearly three decades relations between our nations have been strained.” These were strained because of the arrogance and belligerence of successive US administrations toward the Islamic Republic. In stating that the US seeks constructive ties with Iran, he admitted, “this process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.” So far, so good but it is what he said about the Islamic Republic itself that gives cause for concern and shows that even Obama has not grown out of the worn-out rhetoric.
While stating that “the United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations,” he went on, “You have that right — but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization. And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create.” Claiming to open a new chapter in relations with Iran, Obama still resorts to the same old clichés about Iran’s support of terror and its alleged “capacity to destroy,” presumably meaning its peaceful nuclear program that the US insists it must abandon, thatcharacterised the behaviour of the previous American regime.
Let us get the record straight. In the last 200 years, Iran has not committed aggression against any country; instead, it has been the victim of aggression, most recently from 1980–1988, launched through Ba‘athist Iraq, but supported and financed by the US that also supplied poison gas, other Western countries and the Arab regimes. If Obama truly believes that countries should not seek their “rightful place in the community of nations” through “terror or arms,” let him explain why the US is supporting the Jundullah terrorists of Baluchistan and involved in two simultaneous wars in countries bordering Iran and actively planning to expand it into a third — Pakistan? The US maintains more than 1,000 military bases worldwide and has adefence budget exceeding $500 billion annually that is more than the combined military expenditure of the next 100 countries. The US is the only country in the world to have used nuclear weapons, not once but twice, and has used depleted uranium shells against the people of Iraq whose radiation has not only poisoned the soil but also led to horribly deformed birth of babies in Iraq. American rulers have no moral standing to lecture others about good behaviour.
Iran’s differences with the US do not spring from the fact that Americans do not recognize Iranian contribution to music or art. They are based on US hostility; this point was made most recently by the Rahbar, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei in his March 21 response to Obama’s message when he said Iran seeks substantive, not tactical changes in US behaviour. Washingtonmust demonstrate it has abandoned its threats and bullying not only against the Islamic Republic but also against others. The US must admit the crimes it committed against Iran and pledge not to indulge in such behaviour in the future. If the US is genuine about establishing relations with Iran based on mutual respect, then the US must end the illegal sanctions imposed on Iran, some dating back three decades while others imposed more recently to subvert its peaceful nuclear program. Under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty rules, Iran is within its right to enrich uranium and the International Atomic Energy Agency has found no evidence that any of this fuel has been diverted for illegal or unauthorized purposes.
The US has perpetrated other illegal acts as well. It unilaterally and illegally froze Iranian assets in 1980 amounting at the time to $40 billion (today, these would be worth nearly $400 billion). These must be immediately released. The US must apologise for the deliberate shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane over the Persian Gulf en route to Dubai from BandarAbbas in August 1988 in which all 290 people on board perished (for this act of barbarism, the US gave the second highest naval award to commander Will Rogers of the frigate USS Vincennes that had fired two missiles at the civilian airliner). The US must stop supporting and financing the terrorist group, the Mujahideen-e Khalq Organization (MKO) that is responsible for the assassination of thousands of Iranian citizens, including 1200 top officials and ‘ulama. The US must offer an unconditional apology to Iran for the overthrow of Dr MohammadMussadeq’s government through a CIA-engineered coup in 1953 and pledge not to interfere in the affairs of Iran again.
If Obama is truly serious about seeking “a future where the old divisions are overcome, where you and all of your neighbours and the wider world can live in greater security and greater peace,” then he must do more than quote a passage from Sa‘adi. He must appoint someone who is genuinely committed to developing bridges between the two countries, not Dennis Ross, a well-known Zionist whose hostility to the Islamic Republic springs from his total loyalty to the Zionist apartheid state of Israel. A new beginning is not possible unless the old slate is wiped clean by admission of past crimes. It will take more than uttering Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak to satisfy Iran. After all, generations of Iranians have suffered immensely as result of unremitting US hostility.
While addressing millions of people in Mashhad on March 21, the Rahbar pointed out, “They chant the slogan of change but no change is seen in practice. We haven’t seen any change.” He asked how Obama could congratulate Iranians on the New Year and accuse the country of supporting terrorism and seeking nuclear weapons in the same message. But he left the door open to better ties with the US, saying, “should you change, our behaviour will change too.”
The ball is still in Obama’s court. He must demonstrate that his offer of better ties is not just rhetoric but based on a genuine desire to change. Nobody would welcome this more than the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.