It is becoming increasingly clear that despite whatever good intentions US President Barack Obama may have, his attempt at a rapprochement with Iran consists of little more than a series of gestures notable more for their style than substance. Cases in point are the speeches he has given each March to mark Nowruz, the Iranian New Year. Although some view these messages as an olive branch that Iran consistently brushes away, others see them simply as a public relations exercise.
Implied in the assessments of Obama’s speeches is that Iran’s leaders are among his target audience. Keeping this in mind, his message this year was couched in the assertion that Iran’s leaders are the real root of the problem between Iran and the West concerning Tehran's nuclear program. At the same time, he spoke to the Iranian people in seeking to justify continued sanctions, which have failed to halt Iran’s nuclear program, but have caused the price of fish, a staple of Nowruz celebrations, to soar.
Obama's message indicated that he remains uncertain about his audience. If the target is the Iranian people, he demonstrates a lack of awareness of how sanctions are being felt and interpreted. If it is the Iranian leadership, then attributing the current sanctions to their “unwillingness” to alleviate Western concerns, the most recent message is one step forward and two steps back.
The reality is that in the eyes of most Iranians, the sanctions for which they bear the brunt every day resemble something out of Kafka’s The Trial. Iran has been under sanctions since the 1979 revolution. As a result, the majority of the population today know nothing other than high inflation, trade restrictions and a guarantee of more to come. While, in the United States, administration after administration has been convinced that the sanctions are an effective political instrument, they have become an end in themselves, conveying no particular message. The same can be said of the latest round involving the nuclear issue.
In a Gallup poll conducted in December 2012 and January 2013, 63% of Iranian respondents said they support the country's nuclear program. Only 10% of them blamed the economic sanctions on the Tehran government, while 48% placed the blame on the United States. Some might interpret these figures to suggest that the sanctions have not been successfully linked to the nuclear issue in Iranians' minds. Many Iranians must rely on expired medicine due to shipping restrictions, and some of those studying in the West have endured financial hardship, with sanctions targeting not only Iranian banks, but money transfers of more than $100 dollars. In the case of such examples, many Iranians might, indeed, overlook an outright connection between these measures and the nuclear program and instead perceive other motives at work.
That Obama is now openly addressing Iranian leaders is of importance, as it indicates to them that the US president recognizes their government within the context of negotiations and more broadly in international affairs. Since the revolution, the policy of consecutive US administrations has been to isolate rather than engage Iran’s leadership. This has prevented cooperation not only on the nuclear issue, but also in fighting terrorism, combating drug trafficking and, more recently, on the Syrian civil war. Addressing the Tehran government at the least helps build a foundation for talks based on mutual interests and security concerns.
That said, that Obama singled out Iran’s leadership as the cause of the nuclear crisis will negatively affect the upcoming negotiations in Almaty. By attempting to justify continued sanctions as the inevitable consequence of an Iranian “unwillingness” to cooperate, the speech was read by many in Tehran as predicated on the persistently misplaced assumption that Iranians are on the verge of revolution. As far as US policymakers are concerned, more sanctions means more discontent, which means more leverage for the United States over Iran’s nuclear program, or so the theory goes.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, used his Nowruz message from Mash’had to present his perspective on the sanctions' effect on the Iranian economy. He asserted that despite the sanctions and what he referred to as “negligence” on the part of the government, Iran had nonetheless excelled in certain areas of development. He also declared the coming year as the year of “political and economic valor” and indicated that future governments should decouple the Iranian economy from oil revenues to make it less susceptible to sanctions targeting that industry.
To no one's surprise, Khamenei’s message offered a narrative of the current sanctions different from Obama’s. In the supreme leader's view, the resulting economic and financial hardships are all part of Iran's “resistance economy,” from which economic, scientific and political growth will emerge from maintaining independent foreign and domestic policies. While the sanctions have undoubtedly been harsh on large segments of the Iranian population, as Khamenei recognized in his speech, it cannot be said that they are linked specifically to the nuclear issue in the eyes of Iranians. It is for this reason that Obama’s efforts to link the sanctions this Nowruz to the stubbornness of the government is bound to fail.
Sasan Aghlani is a researcher working on nuclear issues at Chatham House in the International Security Department and a doctoral researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.
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