US President Barack Obama’s Iranian New Year message caught many Iranians, including many Iranian leaders, by surprise. Those who write about Iranian history in the future will refer to Obama’s message as a turning point in relations between the post-Iranian revolution and its arch enemy, the United States.
The message contained several important and unprecedented points. First, unlike all previous messages from US leaders, it did not try to drive a wedge between the Islamic leadership and the Iranian people. Second, it avoided all the previous charges that successive US leaders have leveled at the Islamic regime since its birth in 1979. There was no call for Iran to abandon its nuclear program, no demand that it stop supporting Hamas and other militant groups in the region, nor was the frequent accusation of interference in the affairs of other states, notably Iraq, repeated.
But perhaps the most crucial point about Obama’s New Year message was his reference to the "Islamic Republic of Iran" rather than simply saying Iran. This was the first time since the Iranian revolution and the birth of the Islamic regime in Iran in 1979 that a US president referred to Iran properly. Whether or not Obama realized it, that part of his speech was interpreted in Iran as delivering a significant message to Iranian leaders, to the effect that the US was prepared to recognize the Islamic revolution and therefore the Islamic Republic of Iran. In other words, the US had abandoned the strategy of regime change in Iran.
Obama’s speech was far more conciliatory than even the most optimistic Iranians had anticipated. The US president had fully extended his hand to the Iranian leaders and the ball was now in their court. Less than 48 hours after the speech, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, speaking on the occasion of the beginning of the Iranian New Year, responded to Obama’s olive branch.
Before analyzing the Iranian leader’s response, we must consider the awkward position in which Obama’s message placed the Iranian leaders. Hitherto, their approach toward the US was one of outright dismissal and condemnation for its arrogant power and behavior, support for Israel, inimical policies against Islam and Islamic states, illegitimate occupation of Islamic countries (Iraq and Afghanistan), exploitation of third world countries and the like. Khamenei’s remarks about America’s past and present policies in the region and throughout the world were particularly strong and scornful, invariably including severe attacks on US presidents.
His speech this New Year, however, was much softer regarding the US than anyone could recall. He refrained from the usual salvo against America’s detrimental role in the world and its arrogant and power-hungry president. Instead, he maintained that words alone were insufficient to solve the problems. The US, continued the Iranian supreme leader, must take practical steps to prove that it is sincere in its aspiration to avoid repeating past mistakes and to adopt a new and different strategy. Thus the ayatollah did not slam the door on Obama; he was prepared to wait until the new US president demonstrated that he was genuine in carrying out changes. A more positive response was yet to come, surprisingly, from hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad. Still, Ahmadinezhad did not go beyond the supreme leader’s guidelines and basically maintained that Iran was prepared to have "serious, positive and constructive dialogue with the US".
Yet not all the responses from across the ruling hard-line spectrum were lukewarm or ready to give Obama a chance. The more radical currents and figures warned the others not to trust "the gimmick, the disguise that the new US president was hiding behind". A leading hard-line newspaper used an old and famous Iranian proverb to describe the new US president: "a baby wolf that is raised with a human being will ultimately turn into a wolf." In other words, sooner or later Obama would present his real "face", one that is not very different from that of the previous US president. Every word used by the new administration regarding Iran that sounded similar to the previous vocabulary was highlighted in print to demonstrate the "wolf’s" real character. US statements that did not correspond to this theory were either neglected or were exploited so as to demonstrate the arrogance of American power.
On balance, however, the atmosphere in Tehran is one of "wait-and-see". The customary daily shouts of "death to America" have decreased as has the burning of the US flag. While it is too early to conclude that detente has emerged between Iran and the US, many Iranians remain optimistic that the time is right for change between the two countries.