U.S., Iranian Leaders Set Stage for Negotiations
"You change, and we shall change as well." This statement from Iran's supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, at a mass rally in Iran was a response to President Barack Obama's video address to "the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran" on March 20, the Iranian new year holiday of Nowruz.
Most U.S. media outlets treated Khamanei's statement as a "rebuff" or "dismissal" of Obama's outreach. In fact, it was a conditional green light to improved ties with the United States. It was also an implicit admission that changes were warranted in Iranian, as well as in U.S., behavior.
These two statements were carefully crafted to set out expectations for negotiations and prepare the U.S. and Iranian publics for a possible rapprochement after 30 years of hostility and mutual recrimination.
A New Beginning
President Obama associated his approach to Iran with Nowruz, a "season of new beginnings," and declared, "My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties." He added, "The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. 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."
Ayatollah Khamanei made clear that Iran's cooperation depends on future U.S. actions, but he affirmed that a change in U.S. behavior will be met with a change in Iranian behavior. He recited a long list of Iranian grievances against the United States, from U.S. influence in Iran under the Shah, to U.S. backing of Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, to U.S. support for terrorism by groups opposed to the current regime. But he also said, "We do not have any experience with the new U.S. president and government. We shall see and judge. You change, and we shall change as well." Khamanei warned the United States, "If you go on with the slogan of discussion and pressure, saying that you will negotiate with Iran, and at the same time impose pressure, threats, and changes, then our nation will not like such words." Obama, for his part, addressed this issue when he said that the diplomatic process "will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect."
Obama's address represents a decisive shift in long-standing U.S. policy toward Iran, especially, but not only, from that of the George W. Bush administration. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen summarized the change well when he wrote on March 22 that Obama "abandoned regime change as an American goal. He shelved the so-called military option. He buried a carrot-and-sticks approach viewed with contempt by Iranians as fit only for donkeys. And he placed Iran's nuclear program within 'the full range of issues before us.'"
Khamanei's speech in Mashad was punctuated by chants of "Death to America," but Khamanei repeatedly quieted the crowd and asserted that Iranian decision making would be based on a reasoned weighing of the national interest, not on emotion: "We have logic. Since the beginning, the Iranian nation moved with logic. Regarding our vital issues, we are not sentimental. We do not make decisions based on emotion. We make decisions through calculation." Iran's calculation, he implied, will be based on its assessment of the change in U.S. policy. He called on the United States to clarify what has changed. "Has your enmity toward the Iranian nation changed? What signs are there to support this? Have you released the possessions of the Iranian nation? Have you removed the cruel sanctions? Have you stopped the insults, accusations, and negative propaganda against this great nation and its officials?" He also asked the United States if it had ended its "unconditional support for the Zionist regime," not mentioning Israel by name. But earlier in his speech, in a rare and possibly unprecedented break with practice, he did mention Israel by name, though he also termed it "the cruel Zionist regime."
Back to the Future?
The statements of Obama and Khamanei may remind some observers of the comprehensive negotiating agenda that Iran presented to the United States in a May 2003 memorandum, after two years of quiet, low-level negotiations with Bush administration officials. In the memorandum Iran proposed to meet U.S. concerns over its nuclear program, use its influence to end violence by Hamas and Hezbollah, and recognize Israel as part of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In return, Iran proposed that the United States end economic sanctions, allow Iran access to global markets and Western technology, and fully normalize relations with Iran. The Bush administration reacted by abruptly cutting off further contact. The Obama and Khamanei statements suggest that the United States and Iran are now engaged in a much higher profile approach to that same agenda. This time around it is possible that real fruit will follow the bloom.