Contrary to NYT Claim, Obama’s Use of ‘Islamic Republic of Iran’ in Nowruz Messages Was Erratic

By Patrick Goodenough | March 24, 2017 | 4:32am EDT
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a chilly response to President Obama/s 2009 Nowruz offer for a ‘new beginning’ – and eight years later his reaction was similarly cool. (AP Photo, File)

( – President Trump’s Persian new year (Nowruz) message this week drew comparisons with his predecessor’s statements over the previous eight years, with the New York Times commenting that Trump’s greetings ignored the Iranian government and did not use the formal term Islamic Republic of Iran, “as Mr. Obama did.”

The Times cited “two people involved in the process” as saying that “hard-liners” in the White House removed from earlier drafts all references to engagement with the government.

In fact, Obama’s Nowruz messages were varying both in their use of “Islamic Republic of Iran” – only four of the eight did – and in their references to engagement with the regime in Tehran.

On both counts, they largely reflected current developments and the state of relations between the two adversaries at the time each new year came around.

His first one, in March 2009, used “Islamic Republic of Iran” twice – something remarked upon favorably by pro-regime media outlets, with state-funded Press TV calling it “an explicit acceptance of the Islamic Revolution.”

Engagement featured prominently in that message by the new Democratic president, who offered “a new beginning,” a future of exchanges, opportunities for partnership and commerce, and the overcoming of old divisions.

The Washington-based National Iranian American Council welcomed the “wonderful” statement, and called Obama’s approach “a significant break with the Bush administration policies.”

But the outreach received a cool response from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who in a speech directed a challenge to Obama: “Show us if really anything other than your language has changed,” he said. “Has your animosity with the Iranian nation changed? Have you unfrozen Iranian assets? Have you lifted sanctions? Have you stopped mudslinging? Have you ended unconditional support for the Zionist regime?”

A year later, Obama used “Islamic Republic of Iran” again in his Nowruz 2010 message. It would not appear again in his annual greeting until 2014.

The 2010 message did repeat the offer of engagement (“our offer of comprehensive diplomatic contacts and dialogue stands”), even though the previous year had witnessed the violent suppression of protests over the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

By 2011, Obama’s Nowruz message had a different tone: There was no “Islamic Republic of Iran,” and no reference to engagement with the government, but instead strong criticism of its treatment of its own people

“[I]t is telling when a government is so afraid of its own citizens that it won’t even allow them the freedom to access information or to communicate with each other,” he said then. “But the future of Iran will not be shaped by fear. The future of Iran belongs to the young people – the youth who will determine their own destiny.”

A year later, the 2012 Nowruz greetings again did not use “Islamic Republic of Iran” and was again critical of the government’s actions, especially regarding censorship and Internet restrictions. Obama did not directly offer engagement with the government, although he did say that if it “pursues a responsible path, it will be welcomed once more among the community of nations.”

By 2013, the tone has shifted back, with the message addressed to “the people and leaders of Iran,” and again holding out the prospect of “a new relationship.”

That message included only an indirect reference to the way the regime treats its citizens, noting that “Iranians deserve the same freedoms and rights as people everywhere.” It was silent on looming presidential election, despite the fact the previous one four years earlier had sparked massive protests and a violent crackdown on dissent.

The 2013 message urged Tehran to resolve the long international dispute over its nuclear program, and for the third consecutive year, however, Obama did not use “Islamic Republic of Iran.”

By the time Nowruz 2014 came around, Obama had spoken to the newly-elected President Hasan Rouhani the previous September – the first such conversation between a U.S. and Iranian leader since the 1979 revolution – and Iran had reached an interim nuclear deal with the U.S. and five other powers.

Reflecting that, Obama’s annual message was upbeat, citing the election of Rouhani and the interim nuclear agreement. “Islamic Republic of Iran” made a reappearance.

Obama said that if Iran seizes the moment, it could usher in a new chapter “including a better relationship with the United States and the American people, rooted in mutual interest and mutual respect.”

The 2015 Nowruz message came after two missed deadlines for reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal – it would finally be reached almost four months later, on July 14.

Obama again reached out to the “Islamic Republic of Iran,” presenting a choice for Iran’s leaders between a path of isolation and hardship, and one offering greater opportunities, ties and trade, should they “agree to a reasonable deal.”

In his last Nowruz message from the White House, in March 2016, Obama once again chose not to use the term “Islamic Republic of Iran.”

The message included a reference to his visit to Cuba, which was underway at the time, calling it “a reminder that even after decades of mistrust, it is possible for old adversaries to start down a new path.”

As he had done eight years earlier, Khamenei responded coldly. In a Nowruz speech he accused the U.S. of reneging on the nuclear deal and sanctions easing, and of trying to restore its “previous hegemony” over Iran.

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