Iran has shrugged off a second New Year message from U.S. President Barack Obama to Iranians, underlining how far the countries are from starting any meaningful dialogue.
At his inauguration last year, Obama offered an outstretched hand if Iran would “unclench its fist”. Two months later at Nowruz, the Persian new year, he offered a “new beginning”.
Obama tried the tactic again at Nowruz last week, saying he still wanted to talk. But he tied the to U.S. efforts to hold Iran “accountable” — a reference to potential new U.N. sanctions over Iran’s nuclear programme — and attacked Iran’s handling of opposition protests.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made no reference to the appeal in two Nowruz speeches this weekend, but suggested Washington had proved that its talk of normalising relations was hollow since U.S. policies towards Iran had not changed.
He focused heavily on the protests, which often turned violent: “Eight months after the elections they took the worst possible stance. The president called those rioters and saboteurs ‘civil rights activists’,” Khamenei said.
Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a politics professor in the United Arab Emirates, said the contrast to last year’s response was stark.
“If you compare this year’s Obama message to last year’s and compare the reactions, we are definitely in for a setback,” he said. “The dialogue has not moved one step forward.”
Obama’s overture last year was welcomed by some senior officials in Tehran, who praised the desire to resolve differences that stretch back to the 1979 Islamic revolution, though Khamenei dismissed it as a slogan that needed to be backed up with new policies.
But this year’s address was roundly ignored by Iran’s state-dominated media, though many were able to access it through some Farsi- and English-language radio and websites.
ANGER OVER PROTESTS
A Western diplomat in the Gulf said Khamenei, the final arbiter in major policies of state, was sticking to his position of the past year that Iran could not change its approach based on a “change of tone” in an American presidential address.
Khamenei’s speech made clear his view that Washington’s sympathy for the protest movement over the past year — sparked by anger at President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election in June — showed the new rhetoric was only tactical, the diplomat said.
Iran has accused Western powers of fomenting the unrest.
Shafiq Ghabra, a professor at Kuwait University, also said Khamenei and his allies in the ruling establishment did not see a clear enough direction from Washington to open up dialogue.
“Iran is not sure what to believe and not to believe in what is coming out of the United States. Who is calling the shots in Washington? Obama, Congress, the pro-Israel lobby?” he said.
“There is no clarity that the U.S. administration will be able to deliver, not least after their failure on Israeli settlements.”
Washington’s credibility in the region has suffered over its failure to persuade Israel’s right-wing government to halt all settlement activity in the occupied territories, which the Palestinians have made a condition for restarting peace talks.
The U.S. administration is trying to win key Chinese support for a new round of U.N. sanctions on Iran for failing to reach an agreement with major powers on enriching uranium for its nuclear energy programme abroad.
Washington fears the programme is aimed at acquiring nuclear weapons. Analysts say Israel, which is widely believed to have nuclear weapons but sees a nuclear Iran as a threat, could launch a strike against Iranian facilities with U.S. support.
Hawkish pro-Israeli members of Congress could favour a direct U.S. strike and Obama’s administration has said it will do whatever it takes to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons.
Saudi Arabia and smaller Gulf Arab countries that host U.S. forces or provide facilities share U.S. concerns about a nuclear-armed Iran and its ambitions for regional dominance.
A Western diplomat in Riyadh said Saudi Arabia, which might feel obliged to develop an arsenal to match a nuclear Iran, hoped to use its status as China’s top oil supplier to persuade the Security Council veto-holder to get tougher with Iran.
“They are concerned about Iranian influence and ability to have a bomb and are trying to get the Americans to apply more pressure. They always thought sanctions wouldn’t work,” he said.
Many Iranians who support the reform movement are disappointed that Obama has not taken a tougher line with the authorities, as his administration reads the runes to see if a moderate voice emerges in Tehran.
Diplomats and analysts say the ruling establishment remains split over dialogue with Washington, which Ahmadinejad might have favoured in recent months, before he was drowned out.
“At this stage it is the Iranians who are being difficult, who are not taking advantage,” said Emirati politics professor Abdullah. “I think there are more problems in Tehran at this moment than there are in Washington.”
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)