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smart power: Obama’s video to Iran provokes fear

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke extensively of “smart power” in her description of how America’s foreign policy would seek to engage the world. Obama’s video message to Iran, on the occassion of Nowruz, is destined to become a case study for “smart power”, given that it probably did more to influence the upcoming Iranian elections in our favor and towards the path to reform than any sanctions or “axis of evil” rhetoric ever could have. As reported by the Associated Press, Obama’s video sparked a negative reaction from Tehran, precisely because they recognize it’s threat:


Obama’s overture comes ahead of national elections in June.
Ahmadinejad faces a tough campaign against reformists, who favor better
ties with the West and the United States.

The reformists, led by former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi,
may try to use promises to thaw the nearly 30-year diplomatic freeze to
gain votes. In contrast, conservatives may get caught between
maintaining their tough position or offering some opening for dialogue
with Washington.

At the least, Obama’s overtures put pressure on hard-liners to
justify their anti-American stance to Iranians, said Karim Sadjadpour,
an Iran expert at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace.


Previously, the hard-liners have been able to blame the impasse on Bush, who was widely unpopular in Iran.

“Rather than tip the scales in favor of (hard-line) radicals, as the
Bush administration did, I think Obama’s efforts at diplomacy will
undermine them and puncture their narrative of a hostile U.S.
government bent on oppressing Iran,” Sadjadpour said.

Obama’s acknowledgment of Iran’s rich history and culture will
undoubtedly resonate well here and could encourage calls for leaders to
begin deeper contacts.

But all depends on Khamenei, who holds the last word on any major
policy decisions. Without backing from the ruling clerics, no
diplomatic initiatives toward Washington are possible and could work in
Ahmadinejad’s favor in the campaign.


The point of Obama’s message was not to influence policy, however. It was simply to generate goodwill at teh grassroots level among the Iranian population, which in turn will generate upwards pressure which will benefit candidates for reform. We aren’t going to see a change in Iran’s atitude overnight, but rather as part of a long-term process of engagement with the people who really matter – the Iranians themselves. No wonder the mullahs are scared.

  • Your Name

    Why would the mullahs be scared of Obama when Obama wisely made a point of referencing Iran as the “islamic republic of iran” and made a point of recognizing Iran’s role in the region.
    Khamenei response was even more constructive, reminding Obama that he has to go beyond mere words if he truly wants change.

  • bse5150

    Why would Iran be afraid of the US or Obama in any way if we do nothing but ask them to ‘unclench their fist’ while every day they get closer to becoming a nuclear military power?

  • Paul A’Barge

    Aziz is just spinning for Obama. And that is in keeping with Aziz’s personal politics. Look here:
    So, we have a Texas Democrat doing his best to justify the ludicrous YouTube-ish attempt by the effete Obama to wheedle and cajole Obama’s way into the good graces of the Iranian terrorist monsters.
    Don’t be surprised to read Aziz claiming next that Obama has terrified Satan himself.
    Here’s a clue, Aziz … the Iranian government has no moderates and every member of that government is an enemy not just of the United States but also of all humanity.
    When it comes time to frighten the Iranian so-called conservatives you’re going to need the help of the US Military. Something Obama is unlikely to be able to get since Obama appears to be so busy hatching schemes to get wounded American veterans to pay for their own health care.

  • brooklynsteel

    “it probably did more to influence the upcoming Iranian elections in our favor and towards the path to reform than any sanctions or “axis of evil” rhetoric ever could have…”
    now there is an overwhelming amount of wishful thinking, inspired by a partisan embrace.
    do you really consider contemporary elections in Iran as legitimate?
    are you certain you know for certain the intent of the Obama Administration, or do you have some insider ability to read their minds?
    in reality, every offering of diplomacy, whether challenging or warm, would create the same hostile response from the the powers controlling Iran.
    their expression of overt hostility, towards the Free West is very sincere.

  • robotech master

    “As reported by the Associated Press, Obama’s video sparked a negative reaction from Tehran, precisely because they recognize it’s threat:”
    So if Tehran reacts negatively to it…. then bush is your god because damn they hated him and were nothing but negative…
    If your going to try to spin…. do at least make in somewhat challenging to troll… I could write a longer piece about how this piece supports bush then this piece is long…

  • Mike G

    I didn’t agree with the general rightwing take that he was being too servile to the regime. I think some talk like that is good… if it also talks PAST the regime to the people and recognizes the rights that the regime is denying them. That’s what I thought Obama’s message failed to do.
    Obama’s talk was too much like those who recognized and spoke to Brezhnev in the 70s. A good thing up to a point, and yet it took Reagan to recognize Sakharov and Havel and Sharansky, and bring the whole rotten mess down.

  • Cover Me, Porkins

    If Iranian citizens believe in the sincerity of a new leader of the “Great Satan” — a concept far older than the Bush administration — merely because he sends one vague, friendly message, their distrust can’t be very deep.
    If not, it begs the question of how President Bush could be distrusted, when the majority of his statements over eight years encouraged Iranian civil liberty — such as “I believe the Iranian people ought to be allowed to freely discuss opinions, read a free press, have free votes, be able to choose amongst political parties.”
    Iranians know that it’s Tehran, not Washington, preventing reform; so why would they embrace a foreign leader who grants legitimacy to those standing in the way?

  • swift boater

    so lets see, approving choice A instead of choice B of the mullah’s hand picked candidates is CHANGE! Americans can believe in.
    Keep downing theat Kool-Aid, Obama is doing a bang up job – on the US.

  • MG

    My recollection of the fallout from the “Axis of Evil” speech is that the denizens of the Persian Empire said, “Finally, someone calls it like it is.”

  • Your Name

    So how about this islamofascist spin:
    “Look at this Obama wuss, he’s begging us now, just wait until we’re done with him and America, they’ll be pissing their pants…”
    The absurd belief of demented western commentators in validity of elections in totalitarian regimes used to drive us in commie Czechoslovakia nuts…

  • rrr

    While I certainly hope the analysis here turns out to be true, I’m struck by the impossible double standard. To wit, negative reaction to Obama is a sign the regime is in fear. Negative reaction to Bush indicated favor to hard line radicals. So, is there any conceivable way Obama is not favored and Bush not vilified?

  • Gayle G.

    Paul Barge,
    My nephew was in Iraq and came home to be medically discharged and the Bush Administration wouldn’t recognise his disability. Even though the Army discharged him with the medical discharge due to losing one kidney and the other giving him problems. This was a couple years ago under Bush’s watch!!! The Bush admin. took away a lot of veteran’s benefits! And that’s a fact…

  • OCbill

    I’m a little fuzzy on the whole “reformist” thing. In what important ways do the “reformists” differ from the “hardliners”? Do they renounce the current quest for nuclear weapons? Do they renounce support for terrorism and the export of jihad? Do they support Israel’s right to exist? Do they support equal rights for women? Do they support freedom of religion so that Muslims can convert to other faiths?

  • edh – Sounds good, except Bush did it first.

    You write: “Obama’s video message to Iran, on the occassion of Nowruz, is destined to become a case study for “smart power”, given that it probably did more to influence the upcoming Iranian elections in our favor and towards the path to reform than any sanctions or “axis of evil” rhetoric ever could have.
    Sounds good, except Bush did it first. Try “Smart Google” next time.
    Text of President Bush’s Message on Nowruz and Interview with VOA Persian Service
    I send greetings to those celebrating Nowruz.
    For the millions of people who trace their heritage to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Pakistan, India, and Central Asia, Nowruz is a time to celebrate the New Year with the arrival of spring. This cherished and ancient festival brings together family and friends to reflect on what has come before and celebrate a season of new beginnings.
    Our country is proud to be a land where individuals from many different cultures can pass their traditions on to future generations. The diversity of America brings joy to our citizens and strengthens our Nation during Nowruz and throughout the year.
    Laura and I send our best wishes to all those celebrating Nowruz, both here in the United States and abroad. May the year ahead be filled with peace and many blessings.
    Transcript of an Interview of President Bush by Setareh Derakhsheh of VOA Persian Service
    Q Mr. President, let me thank you first on behalf of the Voice of America, on behalf of the Persian News Network for giving us your time. We really appreciate that, sir.
    President Bush
    THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
    Q As you know, Mr. President, this is the eve of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year. What is your message to the Iranian people as they face tough economic circumstances and infringement on their freedoms?
    THE PRESIDENT: Well, first, Nowruz a tan Mubarak. Secondly, that the people of the United States respects the people of Iran; that we respect the traditions of Iran, the great history of Iran. We have differences with the government, but we honor the people, and we want the people to live in a free society. We believe freedom is a right for all people and that the freer the world is, the more peaceful the world is. And so my message is, please don’t be discouraged by the slogans that say America doesn’t like you, because we do, and we respect you.
    Q What do you say to the regime, sir — what would you say to the regime?
    THE PRESIDENT: I’d say to the regime that they made decisions that have made it very difficult for the people of Iran. In other words, the Iranian leaders, in their desire to enrich uranium — in spite of the fact that the international community has asked them not to — has isolated a great country; and that there’s a way forward. I mean, the Iranian leaders know there’s a way forward, and that is verifiably suspend your enrichment and you can have new relationship with people in the U.N. Security Council, for example. It’s just sad that the leadership is in many ways very stubborn, because the Iraqi — the Iranian people are not realizing their true rights. And they’re confusing people in Iraq, as well, about their desires. It’s a tough period in history for the Iranian people, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
    Q On the nuclear issue, sir, is there a solution to the problem that would both satisfy the United States’ concern and at the same time allow Iran to proceed with non-military nuclear energy research?
    THE PRESIDENT: Well, part of the problem is that it’s very hard for people to trust the Iranian government because they haven’t told the full truth, and that’s why the people of Iran have got to understand there are great suspicions right now, not only in the United States, but around the world. But there is a better way forward. And I thought, for example, the Russians proposed an interesting way, that says — and I have said publicly, and the Iranian people need to know that I believe Iran has the right to have civilian nuclear power. I believe in civilian nuclear power. Iran is a sovereign country and they should have it. The problem is we just don’t trust the government because they haven’t been forthcoming about their enrichment of fuels to go into the reactor, and therefore Russia has offered to provide fuel on a contractual basis and provide fuel on a consistent basis. It would help solve the problem, and that is the Iranians wouldn’t need to enrich, it would have fuel for their reactor and the people would have cheaper electricity. And I support that idea.
    President Bush (left) being interviewed by Setareh Derakhsheh of
    VOA Persian Service
    Q Sir, would you allow enrichment inside Iran if there are guarantees and international supervision?
    THE PRESIDENT: I would have to be convinced that any secret programs would be disclosed. In other words, I — once a nation hasn’t told the truth, it requires a lot of work to convince people that they’ll be telling the truth in the future. And my problem is, is that the Iranian government has not been forthcoming, has not fully disclosed their programs like the IAEA asked them to. So there’s a lot of distrust right now. And the better way forward is for there to be a contractual, solid obligation to provide fuel for a nuclear reactor and then the Iranians can have their civilian nuclear power.
    Q At a time when Iranians are going through very difficult economic circumstances — there’s high employment — high unemployment, there are high prices, there are unfilled promises — the United Nations Security Council just passed a new set of sanctions against the regime. Is the United States concerned, sir, that the regime might exploit these circumstances to whip up anti-American sentiment, and also to use those and misuse them?
    THE PRESIDENT: Sure. No, I appreciate that. Of course we are. We’re always concerned about the individual. I’m concerned about the mom trying to raise her child in a hopeful environment. I’m concerned about a child wanting to gain the knowledge so that he or she can realize her God-given talents. And of course we’re worried about the human condition. And any time a government is failing to meet the needs of people — or a lot of times, not “any time,” but a lot of times governments have failed to meet the needs of their people, particularly in relatively non-transparent, non-free societies they always look for somebody to blame. And I’m not surprised that the leaders would blame the United States for the problems they, themselves, have created. So, yes, this enters my mind. On the other hand, the people of Iran must understand that the conditions exist in large part because of either management by the government or isolation because of the government’s decisions on foreign policy matters — such as announcing they want to destroy countries with a nuclear weapon. It is irresponsible remarks like that which cause great credibility loss with the Iranian government, the actions of which are affecting the country.
    Q Mr. President, if I may, I want to ask you about Iraq also. Today is the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war and you had a speech on the war on terror. Are you satisfied with the political situation in Iraq, in view of the improving security situation? And also, has Iran played a role in this?
    THE PRESIDENT: I am pleased, but not satisfied. I am pleased because there’s a modern constitution in Iraq. I am pleased because people have voted in Iraq. I am pleased because they’re heading toward provincial elections in Iraq. I’m pleased to see democracy moving. I’m not satisfied because there’s more work to be done. One of the problems we do have in Iraq is the — there’s been some negative Iranian influence, such as the exportation from Iran of certain weapons that have been used by extremists to murder and to kill people. And it’s been particularly unhelpful. Now, look, I understand Iraq and Iran are going to have relations; after all, they’ve got a long border. But from my perspective, Iran has not been helpful in terms of helping this young democracy survive. I would think it would be in Iran’s interests to have a peaceful neighbor. They had been at war at one time with Iraq. I would believe that a peaceful Iraq would be in the long-term interests of the Iranian people. And yet it’s hard to have a peaceful Iraq if there are elements inside the country that are trying to use violence and murder to continue to stir up sectarian doubts and raise concerns which will cause more violence.
    Q There have been recent contacts between the United States and Iran over Iraq. Some dissidents inside Iran think that these might expand to other areas, and they feel that this will undercut their position and that would strengthen the regime’s hand. What are your thoughts on that, sir?
    THE PRESIDENT: My thought is, is that the reformers inside Iran are brave people, they’ve got no better friend than George W. Bush, and I ask for God’s blessings on them on their very important work. And secondly, that I would do nothing to undermine their efforts. And thirdly, that the talks between Iran — between the U.S. and Iran about Iraq are solely about Iraq, and that the message to the Iranians is: Stop importing your weapons, your sophisticated IEDs, or there will be consequences inside of Iraq. And when we find people transporting weapons that are aimed to harm innocent people or to arm militias that are aiming to harm innocent people, then they will be brought to justice; that there’s a better way to deal inside of Iraq than the Iranians are now dealing. And so this message is nothing more than limited to Iraq.
    Q Mr. President, thank you very much. And thanks for allowing me to do the interview, sir.
    THE PRESIDENT: Thank you; yes, ma’am.

  • Zootie

    Gayle G.
    March 23, 2009 7:30 PM
    Paul Barge,
    My nephew was in Iraq and came home to be medically discharged and the Bush Administration wouldn’t recognise his disability. Even though the Army discharged him with the medical discharge due to losing one kidney and the other giving him problems. This was a couple years ago under Bush’s watch!!! The Bush admin. took away a lot of veteran’s benefits! And that’s a fact…
    Your nephew was probably a spy for the other side.

  • Your Name

    What makes anyone think that “ordinary” Iranians ever saw this video?
    If it was perceived by the regime as threatening, I would not expect it to have ever been broadcast in Iran. I believe that this was a naive shot in the dark by an amateur who thinks that he knows better than anyone else how to conduct diplomacy. It’s easy to come to believe your own narrative. Unfortunately that does not make it true.

  • exelwood

    As I read this the phrase; “please don’t throw me in the brier patch” kept running through my mind. :)

  • jms

    Young Iranians are apparently quite internet-adept. I’m sure they had no problem finding it.

  • Roy Lofquist

    You may be correct that, in the long run, it may help to reform the government. You are obviously far more familiar with the situation there than I. (I was in Tehran briefly in 1962).
    However, there is a potentially dangerous situation in the near term. My concern is that neither side understands the other. This is historically the kind of situation that leads to military conflict.
    There is a bit of a consensus amongst western analysts that the leadership of Iran views the video as a sign of weakness, that Obama has taken the stick off the table. If we take Khameni at his word this seems to be the case.
    There also seems to be a judgment by Iran that Israel is an American puppet. That is not the case. I speculate that there a couple of things that would trigger an Israeli attack. First, the delivery of the Russian S-300 air defense system. The second is a move to convert the reactor grade uranium to weapons grade.
    I pray that this will not happen. I’m afraid it will.
    Roy Lofquist
    Titusville, Florida, USA

  • Fen

    Yah, these are the “reformers” we’ve been courting for the last 2 decades. Good luck with that.
    Obama’s “smart” diplomacy only means he’ll trade away our every gain “for the promise of future negotiations”

  • tiger

    Sorry Aziz, it’s just not the case. Tehran is far less fearful of the US than ever. Look at both their actions and words since Obama’s inaguaration. Provocative, defiant, direct and steadfast. They have now stated that they WILL become a nuclear power, they have stepped up their support of Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas and have essentially turned down every really nice gesture by Obama. That isn’t fear, that’s the certainty that comes from knowing you’ve got a very weak opponent in President Obama. Wise up will you?

  • Your Name

    It is a great relief that President Obama is continuing some of the smart actions initiated by President Bush in disarming Islamist terror, like speaking directly to Iranians on their New Years.
    Unfortunately, those good actions are outflanked by dreadful moves, like his letter to Russia secretly selling Poland and Eastern Europe down the river for cheap bargaining power. Russia exposed the letter to its advantage, saying in essence “Thanks, we accept a defenseless Eastern Europe, and you get nothing in return,” showing Obama’s awesome ad hoc duplicity to a sobered world.

  • yong

    who fear obama? he likes to be liked by others and he got it as president, but what can he do, he has to nice and not to offence anyone or any nation. he likes to be liked. poor him….

  • Ollie

    Moderates in Iranian theocracy? Surely, you jest?
    These are the same moderates that constantly call for the destruction of Israel, the destruction of the West, and the destruction of the Great Satan, the USA.
    It was the moderates that, before Ahmedinejad, called for the Fire of Allah to be built, an allusion to nuclear weapons. And that this Fire of Allah will cleanse the world of Israel and the Great Satan the USA.
    We must not have illusions as to the real radicalism even the so-called moderates continue to espouse.

  • Your Name

    More power to Obama for using reason and changing the coarse of stupidity of the “axis of evil” mindset that emboldened our own fanatics: the kinder, gentler taliban of the religious right.
    You think Iran is full of extremests? Thank the good ol US of A’s reprehensible policies of the last fifty years for helping make it that way. One could hardly blame them for trying to show some leverage in their place on the map.
    Do I condone Irans actions or policies? No. But do I find the sheer hypocracy and downright criminality of Isreal and America discusting? Absolutely. The more we can get out of the middle east (END BOTH WARS for starters, don’t escalate them Mr President) and practice real neutrality the more we can begin to comprehend real peace.
    Bush and Cheney were a part of the axis of evil. They are gone. Perhaps we can hope for real reform in Iran. They have an amazing population of people who deserve better than the fundamentalist filth that has perverted them for too long.

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