Perhaps the most discussed passage in Barack Obama's Inaugural Address was his peace offering to dictators and leaders of rogue states.
"To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent," he said, "know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
The man who had campaigned on direct meetings with rogue leaders "without preconditions" appeared to be toughening his approach just a little. The words were conciliatory and intended to signal a shift from the Bush administration, but he added a condition.
The next day Bill Neely of Britain's ITV News reported the response from the leadership in Iran. "Obama's is the hand of Satan in a new sleeve," explained Hossein Shariatmadari, spokesman for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader. "The Great Satan now has a black face." Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wasn't impressed either. "If it's like the past and America is bullying us then there will be no new era between us," he said.
Obama has spent the intervening eight months attempting to convince Ahmadinejad and Iran's clerical leadership that he is not a bully. Despite these efforts--and in some ways because of them--the Iranian leadership remains firmly in power, more radical and more dangerous than ever. The Obama administration's short history of relations with Iran is a picture of weakness.
On March 19, in a videotaped peace greeting, Obama offered best wishes on the celebration of Nowruz--the Iranian New Year--to "the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran." Obama spoke of a "season of new beginnings" and said
My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.
In a speech the following day, Khamenei dismissed Obama's overture. "Change in words is not enough, although we have not seen change in words, either." He accused Obama of following the "crooked ways" of George W. Bush.
The Obama administration's response was to step up its efforts. In an early April meeting with European diplomats in London, Undersecretary of State William Burns formally declared that the United States would participate in face-to-face talks with the Iranians, and the P5+1 negotiating group (made up of the permanent members of the Security Council and Germany) conveyed the invitation to Tehran. There was no response. So in early May, Obama wrote a letter directly to Khamenei to express his desire for an amicable resolution of the disagreements over Iran's nuclear program and an end to the decades of hostility between Iran and the United States.
Still no response, though later that month, Iran tested a solid-fuel rocket capable of hitting Israel and the U.S. bases in the Middle East. Although Iranian leaders have long claimed that their nuclear program is peaceful, Ahmadinejad celebrated the successful test at a campaign rally by declaring:
In the nuclear case, we send them a message: Today the Islamic Republic of Iran is running the show. We say to the superpowers, "Who of you dare to threaten the Iranian nation? Raise your hand!" But they all stand there with their hands behind their backs.
And that is precisely what Obama did when the Iranian regime brutally put down protests that had arisen following the rigged presidential elections on June 12. He initially refused to condemn the crackdown to avoid upsetting the Iranian regime. Only after international broadcasts began running the grisly scenes from the streets of Tehran on a loop, and following strong denunciations from several European leaders, did Obama speak out against the escalating violence. Still, the White House never supported the courageous opposition leaders for fear of "meddling" and never challenged the bogus results of the election. (At one point, in response to a question about whether the U.S. government recognizes Ahmadinejad as the legitimate leader of Iran, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said: "He's the elected leader." After the outcry, Gibbs amended his statement.)
The Iranian regime did not appreciate the forbearance. In his first public speech after the disputed election, Khamenei falsely claimed that Obama had been supporting the Iranian opposition and wondered how he could reconcile the hostility towards Iran with the conciliatory letter of May.
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