Obama’s Nowruz message included only an indirect reference to the way ordinary citizens are treated by the regime, noting that “Iranians deserve the same freedoms and rights as people everywhere.”
The president urged Tehran to resolve the decade-long international dispute over a nuclear program which it maintains is for purely peaceful purposes but Western governments believe provides a cover for developing a nuclear weapons capability.
“Now is the time for the Iranian government to take immediate and meaningful steps to reduce tensions and work toward an enduring, long-term settlement of the nuclear issue,” he said.
Obama added that a solution to the standoff would hold economic and diplomatic benefits while continuing along the path Iran is on would only deepen its international isolation.
He did not warn of the possibility of military action to neutralize the threat. The Israeli government, which is preparing to host Obama on his first presidential visit on Wednesday, favors a clearer warning that force is an option to prevent a regime whose leaders have called for Israel’s destruction from developing a nuclear bomb.
Obama told Israel’s Channel Two television in a pre-visit interview that he believes there is time to resolve the issue diplomatically.
“Right now we think that it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but we obviously don’t want to cut it too close,” he said.
Obama’s Nowruz messages have differed in focus and tone over the years. The first, in 2009, called for “a new beginning” in relations with Tehran – an offer of engagement that was repeated a year later, despite the intervening re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and violent suppression of protests over a result widely seen as rigged.
The 2009 and 2010 messages also contained the term “Islamic Republic of Iran” rather than simply “Iran,” a language choice that drew favorable comment at the time from pro-regime media outlets.
Obama’s Nowruz messages in 2011 and 2012 put aside the engagement issue, however, focusing rather on Iranian young people’s hopes for the future. Also missing in those messages, and in the 2013 one, was any reference to the “Islamic Republic.”
The message released on Monday again held out the prospect of “a new relationship.”
Although addressed to “the people and leaders of Iran,” it was in fact directed at the people, with Obama referring to their leaders in the third person. (“I hope they choose a better path—for the sake of the Iranian people and for the sake of the world.”)
Because of that audience, the absence of any reference to the impending election seemed out of place. The 2009 election sparked the biggest anti-government protests seen in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and a crackdown on reformists and their supporters whose repercussions are still being felt.
On June 14, Iranians are due to go to the polls to choose a successor to Ahmadinejad, whose second and last term is ending.
As in previous elections, the Guardian Council, an unelected body appointed by the supreme leader, will decide several weeks ahead of the vote which small group of candidates, from a pool of hundreds or possible thousands of aspirants, will be allowed to run.
In every presidential election since the revolution the Guardian Council has disqualified the vast majority of applicants. The most it ever allowed was ten candidates in 2001 – out of 814 who had submitted candidacies that year.
In 2009, only four out of 476 hopefuls were approved, and two of them – former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi – were “reformists” who were later put under house arrest.
After the post-2009 election upheaval, few Iran experts expect any credible reform-minded candidates to get the nod this time, although some have applied.
Secretary of State John Kerry raised eyebrows recently when he referred to Iran as a country with an “elected” government (while answering a reporter’s question about negotiating with a “terrorist” regime). Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during his confirmation hearings called the regime in Tehran “legitimate,” before retreating under criticism and saying he should have said “recognized.”