Significant speeches really encapsulate and summarize the US view on the Middle East and in the case of Barack Obama's Nowruz message to the Iranian people, on US perceptions of and relations with Iran.
Obama immediately starts his speech with a very commonly held Western misconception about Iran:
Iran’s leaders have sought their own legitimacy through hostility to America.This is one of many American cliches about the Middle East. Legitimacy for Iran's or any other government does not flow from hostility to America. Legitimacy flows from doing what the people of a country consider to be the right thing. Ronald Reagan did not get legitimacy from his opposition to the USSR as a country, Kwame Nkrumah did not get legitimacy from his opposition to South Africa as a country. Ronald Reagan led a country that had come to perceive communism as its enemy. Nkrumah led a country whose people opposed the institutionalized White supremacy embodied in Apartheid.
Iran's leaders rule a country whose people do not share with Americans the belief that Israel's security - a strategically invulnerable majority state for about 5 million Jewish people in Palestine - is the overarching moral consideration of the entire region. And if America's leaders, including Obama but unlike Iran's leaders, were not afraid to discuss that topic directly then this would be the single disagreement that must be resolved to end the war the US is leading, to some degree unknowingly, against Israel's region and to a greater or lesser extent against the entire Muslim world.
It is really difficult for Americans to understand that US policies generate hostility. There is an intense egocentrism reflected in this difficulty, an idea that opinions, priorities and sensibilities held in America are held universally. Obama's statement that Iran's leaders have sought legitimacy from hostility to America is his echo of George Bush's statement that "they hate us for our freedoms". It is difficult to believe anyone is that naive to believe an idea this unserious and silly, but then you hear it repeated again and again.
Iran's leaders have not sought legitimacy from hostility to the US. Iran's leaders have sought legitimacy by advancing the idea that other things - such as Iran's own right to technology, Iraq's independence, Lebanon's right to majority rule and Palestine's right to leadership that are accountable to Palestinians rather than Americans and Israelis - are more important than permanently ensuring that 5 million Jewish people in Palestine never suffer the indignity of non-Jewish majority rule. The United States, as a matter of policy under Democrats and Republicans, opposes Iran, along with most people in the region, on all of those counts.
Obama then moves to Iran's nuclear program and is no more or less insulting to the intelligence of the Iranian people than he always is when he talks about this.
Together with the international community, the United States acknowledges your right to peaceful nuclear energy – we insist only that you adhere to the same responsibilities that apply to other nations."Apply to other nations." Compare to a speech given by Obama in November 2009:
We have made clear that if Iran lives up to the obligations that every nation has, it will have a path to a more prosperous and productive relationship with the international community.At that time he falsely claimed that the obligations he would impose on Iran apply to "every nation". He's cleaned that up a little but is still being deceptive. Japan, Brazil and many other nations have peaceful nuclear energy and also have technology and materials domestically that could be used in theory to make a weapon.
When Obama says international responsibilities, he believes the US has created a "responsibility" that Iran suspend enrichment. The fact that he does not say "suspend enrichment" shows his lack of confidence in the strength of the US argument. It is not clear exactly what he means when he says other nations have that responsibility, which other nations he's talking about and what it became a responsibility for any of them.
US and Israeli strategists believe Israel requires a sense of despondency in Israel's neighbors - a belief that Israel could destroy them but they cannot destroy Israel. Iran having a nuclear program like that of Japan or Brazil would counter this strategic advantage for Israel and the US is willing to abuse the NPT, IAEA and UN Security Council to prevent Iran from attaining such a program.
Fortunately, it seems US decision-makers are in the process of realizing their efforts have failed and are adjusting to the idea that the US is not willing or able to expend the resources that would be necessary to provide Israel with what had until now been considered a necessary element of Israel's strategic posture. We will see in the coming years what the ramifications are of this new US realization that it cannot afford to provide everything Israel needs.
More typical Obama follows:
We are familiar with your grievances from the past – we have our own grievances as well, but we are prepared to move forward. We know what you’re against; now tell us what you’re for.That is a ridiculous question. If Iran is against US domination of Iraq, it is for Iraqi independence from the US. If Obama knows anything that Iran is against, then there is an obvious counterpart that Iran is for. Iran has stated repeatedly what it is for regarding Zionism: a freely held referendum in which Jews and members of all religions in the territory can vote, as well as the refugees - and if they choose, then the democratic dismantlement of the Zionist state.
For reasons known only to them, the leaders of Iran have shown themselves unable to answer that question. You have refused good faith proposals from the international community. They have turned their backs on a pathway that would bring more opportunity to all Iranians, and allow a great civilization to take its rightful place in the community of nations. Faced with an extended hand, Iran’s leaders have shown only a clenched fist.
There was no good faith proposal. The United States understands that Iran does not intend to relinquish its right to enrich uranium, but structured its fuel-swap proposal so that it can withhold delivery of medical fuel for Iran's reactor until Iran relinquishes that right.
The question this part of Obama's speech brings to mind is "why so vague?" Why not say "if you give up enrichment, or the capability to make a weapon in theory we offer talks about economic incentives"? Why talk about a pathway when you can say what's really on the table? Saying "pathway" without mentioning enrichment is a lot like Obama's earlier mention of "differences" without mentioning Israel. It indicates that Obama and his speech-writers understand that they do not have persuasive specific arguments and so reach for increasingly vague language.
Now we get to Obama's most specific endorsement so far of the arguments of Iran's Green Movement:
Last June, the world watched with admiration, as Iranians sought to exercise their universal right to be heard. But tragically, the aspirations of the Iranian people were also met with a clenched fist, as people marching silently were beaten with batons; political prisoners were rounded up and abused; absurd and false accusations were leveled against the United States and the West; and people everywhere were horrified by the video of a young woman killed in the street.Obama is no longer speaking to the majority of Iranians who do not believe that Iran's election results were fraudulent. He is free to make that choice, but it only limits the effectiveness of his address, to the degree his audience is Iranian.
Obama's speech gets worse from there:
The United States does not meddle in Iran’s internal affairs. Our commitment – our responsibility – is to stand up for those rights that should be universal to all human beings. That includes the right to speak freely, to assemble without fear; the right to the equal administration of justice, and to express your views without facing retribution against you or your families.Now, we know the United States is not going to stand of for these supposed "universal" rights in its colonial holdings of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, Obama says specifically that keeping peace with Israel is more important. But I'm confused that Obama would even say the United States does not meddle in Iran's internal affairs.
We have a steady stream of reports of US support for Iranian separatist groups. We have administration officials proudly discussing covert operations against Iran's nuclear program. We have a $400 million allocation towards Iranian "democracy promotion". We have opposition members communicating to the administration to recommend sanctions against specific Iranian political factions. We have the US secretary of state claiming that somehow one faction of Iranian politics has undetectably orchestrated a coup. Given that all of this is well known, what sense does it make to claim not to meddle in Iran's internal affairs?
It is just weird. It just detracts from Obama's general credibility regarding Iran. More:
I want the Iranian people to know what my country stands for. The United States believes in the dignity of every human being, and an international order that bends the arc of history in the direction of justice – a future where Iranians can exercise their rights, to participate fully in the global economy, and enrich the world through educational and cultural exchanges beyond Iran’s borders. That is the future that we seek. That is what America is for."An international order that bends the arc of history in the direction of justice"? What does that mean? Why so vague? The United States stands for ensuring Israel's strategic security by maintaining colonially subservient countries in its region, administered, if necessary, by corrupt pro-US dictators. The United States, across its political spectrum, is comfortable with such dictatorships - and even hopes to expand this relationship to include Iran - until the US is satisfied that the region no longer considers Israel illegitimate or an injustice.
If Iran joins such an order, it will have access to the benefits it had under the Shah, or that Egypt has access to now. He mentions educational and cultural exchanges. In this order, through sanctions or through imposed counter-productive economic policies, Iran, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia would have to remain technologically, industrially and economically undeveloped compared to the 5 million Jewish people of Palestine despite its vastly greater population and natural resource allocation.
This is what Obama means when he says "direction of justice". Obama has been conditioned to accept that the creation, maintenance and security of Israel has been demonstrated to be cosmically necessary because of the Holocaust. It is not something he is prepared to discuss with a skeptical audience in clear terms so we get this misdirection.