In Obama’s Short Address to Iranians, A Smart Act of Foreign Policy

By Siavash Habibi

President Barack Obama's recent speech in Cairo attracted a lot of attention. But an earlier, much shorter message he delivered to Iranians also deserves serious consideration. On March 20, 2009, Mr. Obama congratulated the Iranian people on the Persian New Year with a video address, less than four minutes in length, that rapidly spread on the internet. The gesture represented a new policy spirit toward Iran — a spirit of diplomacy that has been widely expected of him since his campaign days. The Nowruz speech represented the unclenching of the American fist and a congratulation of the New Year, but it also indicated a less obvious policy strategy.

During his campaign, Mr. Obama emphasized the “worthwhile” benefits of diplomacy. Thus, he contrasted himself against President Bush's more aggressive approach to foreign policy. Mr. Obama's Nowruz speech demonstrated follow-through on his campaign promise and showed consistency in his approach of using diplomacy first.

This was important, because Mr. Obama not only established some credibility at home and abroad, but he also completed some of the hard preparation for potentially more aggressive actions against Iran in the future. For if Iran rejects the President's diplomatic gestures, then the United States will have cleared the way for more violent measures, perhaps with the backing of international allies. Military actions will appear more legitimate when President Obama already explored his diplomatic options and proceeded only after they failed.

But this begs the question: Why would the Iranian leaders reject President Obama's gestures?

The Iranian leaders have conducted themselves according to proud nationalism, whereby they have attempted to sway the Iranian people by appealing to their sense of patriotism. They have responded to American and international criticisms of Iran's nuclear program by asserting Iran's rights to maintain its program when other countries enjoy that same privilege. The Iranians express a feeling of humiliation for being prevented from addressing their own energy needs in the same way other countries are allowed to and for being treated, therefore, as a “second class” country.

Given their established positions in domestic and foreign policy, it is unlikely to expect the Iranian leaders to be persuaded by Mr. Obama's diplomatic gestures. Doing so would imply three decades of empty words, threats, and of contradicting other aspects of the national appearance which the Iranian leaders have been trying to construct. Changing their strategy would undermine their credibility and their attempts to display Iran as a proud nation that will not give up its rights.

Given this state of affairs, it should come as no surprise that the Iranian presidential aide Ali-Akbar Javanfekr said in a statement to Press TV in Iran: “If Mr. Obama takes concrete action and makes fundamental changes in U.S. foreign policy towards other nations, including Iran, the Iranian government and people won't turn their back on him.” In addition, Mr. Javanfekr said that inside Mr. Obama's speech were hidden accusations that Iran supported terrorists and provided “arms.” If Mr. Javanfekr was correct, then it would appear that Mr. Obama's tone was not much different from that of Mr. Bush.

The Obama administration probably anticipated this kind of cool response. At the same time, Tehran probably expects no fundamental foreign policy changes from Washington. But if this were true, then what other purpose did Mr. Obama's New Year congratulation serve? Several explanations are possible.

First, perhaps Mr. Obama was trying to widen the gap between the common people and the leaders of Iran. Rather than addressing only the Iranian leaders on March 20, President Obama also spoke to the Iranian people. The Iranian people might have a more positive attitude about this gesture than their leaders presumably do. Moreover, the common people might see it as a long-awaited sign of hope for an end to the difficulties they have endured for decades. After all, Iran has faced sanctions for a long time, and some have complained that the country's oil revenues have not been shared with the people at large. Now that oil prices have declined, Iranians are confronting further economic and perhaps even political discomfort. By rejecting the olive branch offered by Mr. Obama, Iranian leaders might have alienated themselves from the Iranian people, which would benefit the U.S. administration in preparing for aggression. This sequence of events might even pave the way for a hostile uprising inside Iran.

A second possibility is that Mr. Obama's speech was an attempt to restore some of Washington's soft power. Using a more diplomatic tone and showing that the new administration represents a friendly, peace-seeking nation that is open to dialogue are effective steps toward reestablishing the legitimacy of the United States as a supporter of freedom and peace in the world. This would help to restore the American reputation that was damaged under President Bush. The appeal of legitimacy and soft power in the international community is a very useful tool in foreign policy and important for securing U.S. national interests. The Cold War aptly demonstrated the usefulness of having a strong store of soft power, because there was a consensus around the world about who was the hero and who was the villain. There are even those who see the present tension between Washington and Tehran as being a new Cold War because of years of stalemate.

Finally, there is a third possibility, one that is substantially different from what has been suggested in the media and other literature on this subject. I propose a new approach, which can be called “inverse soft power.” Consider Mr. Obama's speech once again. When addressing the Iranian people, he conveyed both implicit and explicit messages:

“Nowruz is just one part of your great and celebrated culture. Over many centuries your art, your music, literature and innovation have made the world a better and more beautiful a place. Here in the United States our own communities have been enhanced by the contributions of Iranian Americans, We know that you are a great civilization, and your accomplishments have earned the respect of the United States and the world…Indeed you will be celebrating your New Years the same way that we Americans mark our holidays…”

The rhetorical technique Mr. Obama demonstrated differs from soft power in the sense that it did not try to make American culture appealing to the Iranian people. Rather, it displayed American appreciation for Iranian culture. This method, inverse soft power, is a way of establishing support amongst the people of the other country toward one's own. For instance, one has a difficult time calling someone “cheap” if that person donates large sums of money to charity every month, or calling someone “brazen” if they continuously display polite and gentlemanly conduct.

I believe that Mr. Obama's speech succeeds in creating such an image of the United States as a supporter of the Iranian people. Since the speech is also addressing all those “who are celebrating Nowruz around the world,” it is a good way of rallying Iranian support for the United States around the world. Again, this will separate the Iranian people from their leaders, since it will undermine the regime's attempts to defame the United States. Furthermore, it may enable a more favorable view of Iranians in the minds of Americans, which is helpful in many ways. It is difficult, then, for the Iranian leaders to legitimize their anti-American actions and statements to their people if those very people do not agree with the image of Americans as enemies. Again, inverse soft power will make it difficult to consider America as the enemy, given the fact that America has displayed the opposite sentiment toward Iran. At a time when globalization and the internet have made the Iranian people familiar with American culture, the worn-out tool of soft power can be sharpened by inverse soft power.

President Obama's speech could be perceived as a mere act of congratulation by many people around the world. At the same time, it can also fulfill several functions beneficial to American interests. This was a seemingly unimportant speech, but it is actually a clever act of foreign policy.

Siavash is currently taking his Master's degree in International Politics at Uppsala University in Sweden, one procrastinated paper after another. He was born in Iran, raised in Sweden, and received a BA degree in the United States. Most of the time, he is engaged in writing music, lyrics and poetry.