President Barack Obama Friday made an unprecedented video appeal to Iranians on their holiday of Nowruz, directly addressing both Iran's people and its leaders to praise the country's culture, declare his commitment to using diplomacy on issues dividing the two governments, and suggest a future where "old divisions are overcome."
The White House released the video on its website early Friday, with Farsi captions and a Farsi transcript also available. In the past, U.S. presidents and secretaries of state have issued statements marking Nowruz, which means "new day" and marks the beginning of spring. But this is apparently the first time the exercise was done as an Internet video and contained such an explicit call for transforming the long-tortured relationship between Tehran and Washington.
The initial reaction from Iran's government was cautious, with one official saying that "minor changes will not end the differences." Iranian officials are believed to be divided over how to deal with a new diplomatic push by Obama, with hard-liners broadly worried about deeper engagement with the United States and some moderates hoping to find a way to reduce tensions that, at times, have included speculation about the possibility of U.S. strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Obama's comments struck several notes likely to resonate in Iran. He lauded the "greatness of the Iranian people and civilization" and said that the nation's achievements had earned the respect of the United States. He used the full name of the country—the Islamic Republic of Iran—and sought to assure it that "the United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations." He also said engagement with Iran should be based on "mutual respect"—a theme of Iran's leadership, including the hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Washington is leading international efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear program, which Iran says is for peaceful purposes but is widely suspected of being an effort to build the capacity to make bombs. U.S. officials have also accused Iran of supporting insurgents in Iraq and terrorists elsewhere in the Middle East, harming Mideast peace efforts, and seeking to extend its influence across the region. Iran is subject to numerous U.S. sanctions.
But the Obama administration is now reviewing Iran policy and considering ways to implement the president's call for "direct diplomacy."
On Friday, he painted a picture of future relations with Iran that could include "renewed exchanges" as well as "opportunities for partnership and commerce." But he also had a warning: "This process will not be advanced by threats." He said that Iran's ascent in the international community "cannot be reached through terror or arms."
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, called the Obama message "historic," saying it signaled U.S. intentions to end "the destructive enmity that has existed for three decades."