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Taking Obama For A Ride | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Last Friday, US President Barack Hussein Obama broadcast a videotaped message on the occasion of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, triggering a new debate about the future of Irano-American relations.

Sending a Nowruz message to Iranians was nothing new for an American president. The first such message was sent by Chester Arthur, the 21st President of the United States, in 1883, a tradition followed by his 22 successors.

However, Obama’s message had two new features.

First, it was addressed to both the “people and leadership” in Iran. The intention was to show that Obama acknowledges the legitimacy of the current system and rejects all ideas of supporting Iranian patriotism against Khomeinism.

The second novelty was Obama’s tone of supplication.

As Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami put it: the man is practically begging the Islamic Republic to take notice of him!

Obama’s message represents a return to President Jimmy Carter’s Iran policy. Carter, too, was prepared to flatter, cajole, and beg to win a smile from the mullahs.

Some analysts see Obama’s message as an indication of Vice President Joseph Biden’s influence in shaping the administration’s Iran policy. A supporter of dialogue with Tehran for years, Biden seems to have sidelined Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who has always espoused a tougher policy toward the mullahs.

But what are we to make of Tehran’s response?

Some analysts claim that the Islamic Republic has already rejected Obama’s overture – end of story. Others, anxious to promote Obama as a political wizard, insist that he has already scored a hit by forcing Tehran to acknowledge that the ball is now in its court.

A closer look at Tehran’s reaction may reveal a more complicated pirouette.

To start with, it is important that Tehran has publicly responded to the message at the highest levels, including the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In previous years, the regime either ignored the American president’s Nowruz message or commented on it through the state-owned media. This time, however, the “leadership”, directly addressed by Obama, has come out with a direct response.

The carefully prepared Khomeinist response uses a number of rhetorical techniques the mullahs have developed over centuries.

The first is “badal-zani” or inversion.

This means using an adversary’s arguments against him. In his message, Obama had invited the mullahs to change their behaviour on certain issues. In his response, Khamenei says: if you change, we will also change!

The second technique is “doon-pashi” or “spreading grains to attract the birds”. The idea is to tantalize the birds with the promise of more feed while leading them into a cage. Khamenei did that by mentioning a number of issues of interest to Obama, a signal that he might be ready to discuss them as the first step toward a broader dialogue.

The third technique is “lapushooni” which could be translated as “hiding the essential while highlighting the irrelevant.” Khamenei used this technique by talking of “insults” and ignoring his regime’s stated aim of driving the Americans out of the Middle East as a prelude to global conquest in the name of the Khomeinist version of Islam.

It is clear that Khamenei wishes to encourage Obama’s illusions that dialogue could produce positive results.

One might ask why was it that the “Supreme Guide” rejected similar offers from both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush?

The Clinton offer of a “Grand Bargain” under which the US would recognize the Islamic Republic as the regional superpower was made in 2000, and rejected for two reasons.

The first was that the Clinton administration was in its lame-duck stage, and the “Supreme Guide” was not sure it could deliver on its promises.

The second reason was that, Tehran had scored major diplomatic successes in Europe, no longer felt isolated, and enjoyed relative economic health thanks to steady oil prices.

In 2006, it was the turn of the Bush administration to have the door shut in its face by Tehran.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s invitation to dialogue was rejected because Tehran felt that the US had “lost in Iraq” and would soon retreat from the Middle East in humiliation.

More importantly, perhaps, Khamenei distrusted and feared Bush. The mullahs believed that Bush, in his heart, was committed to regime change in Iran.

Thus prospects for a “dialogue” with the United States appear better under the Obama administration than under Clinton’s or Bush’s.

One reason is the presence of Joe Biden, regarded by Tehran as “a valued friend”. However, the main reason is Tehran’s perception of Obama as an inexperienced and naive politician who could be taken for a ride without much risk, a reincarnation of the hapless Carter.

Tehran knows that Obama desperately wants to be different from Bush and would be prepared to go far to de-Bushisize American policy.

The idea is to use Obama’s naiveté to buy the Islamic Republic another four years of insurance against its adversaries.

Khamenei’s “yes-but” answer gives Obama something to chew upon for a few months. Obama will then be invited to wait for Iran’s presidential election and the formation of a new administration in Tehran. Khamenei may even ask Ahmadinejad not to stand again, citing “health problems”.

That would enable Khamenei to engineer a victory for Mir-Hussein Mussavi Khamenehi, a fellow Azerbaijani from the same village.

Mussavi-Khamenehi has a long history of contacts with the US and is already praised in Washington as a promising “new-old face”.

Obama-idolators would hail Mussavi-Khamenehi’s victory in the June presidential election as a great success for their “wizard”. Ahmadinejad, the genuine anti-American and Holocaust-denier, will be gone, replaced by a politician with secret contacts with Washington since 1985, (the trouble with Ahmadinejad is that he really means what he says).

These developments would fill what is left of Obama’s term. During that period, Tehran will have its bomb, will spread its influence in Iraq and Afghanistan, will strengthen its hold on Lebanon and Syria, and will go onto the offensive in the Gulf and Pakistan.

And then either Obama wins a second term and continues his confused policies or there will be a new US president, who will also see himself as the great genius who could do what all his predecessors failed to do: tame the Khomeinist beast with sweet words.

Amir Taheri’s new book “The Persian Night: Iran Under The Khomeinist Revolution” is published by Encounter Books, New York and London.