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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.

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