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Is the US talking to Iran, or dictating?

Daily Star
Rami G. Khouri
March 21, 2009
US President Barack Obama continues to make intriguing gestures in the Middle East that seem to soften or even reverse the policies of the Bush administration, the latest being his videotaped message to the Iranian people and leaders on the occasion of the Nowruz holiday that ushers in spring. Obama should be commended for his initiative, which started from his first moments in office when he made a gesture to the people of Iran during his inaugural address.
Obama said in the message that, "My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties ... This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect."
He made this intriguing gesture in the context of his administration's decision earlier this month to extend sanctions against Iran for one more year, on the grounds that Iran poses a threat to the United States' national security. If sticks and stones speak louder than words, the American sanctions would seem to convey a much tougher posture than the conciliatory video message. This would seem to be the first contradiction the US needs to sort out in its overtures to Iran.
Another one is the tendency to reach out with happy words that preach friendship and mutual respect, while also laying down the law on what Iran must do if it wants to be invited for tea at the White House. Obama said that Washington wanted Iran to take its "rightful place in the community of nations," but he also presented some markers for Iran's behavior, noting that Tehran would have to do its part to bring about reconciliation.
"You have that right - but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization," he said. Obama went on to add, "And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create."
We should not underestimate the courage and self-confidence it took for Obama to move in this direction, and to make several gestures toward Iran since taking office. He reflects real strength, political realism and much humility in being able to reverse many aspects of the belligerent Bush approach by, instead, reaching out to Iran.
Yet the persistent flaw in the Obama approach that might prove to be fatal is a lingering streak of arrogance that is reflected in both the tone and the substance of his message. This is most obvious (after telling the Iranians that they are a great culture with proud traditions, which is presumably something they already knew, experienced and felt on their own) in his lecturing Iran about the responsibilities that come with the right to assume its place in the "community of nations," and then linking Iran's behavior with "terror of arms" and a "capacity to destroy."
It is difficult to see how Washington can reconcile the positive gesture of reaching out with Obama's irrepressible need to lecture others about the rules of righteous nationhood. One of the principal complaints that Iran has against the US - and this is mirrored in widespread Arab and Islamist resistance to the US and its allies - is the lingering colonial tendency by the leading Western powers to feel that they write the rules for the conduct of other nations.
This complaint is exacerbated by hearing the Americans warn against the "ability to destroy" and the danger of using "terror or arms" - while Washington sends hundreds of thousands of troops around the world on destructive yet dubious missions, backs its allies in Arab countries with a gusher of arms, and enthusiastically stands by Israel in the latter's actions in Lebanon and Palestine in what many see as a policy of state terror.
The American gestures to Iran seem sincere and serious, but from the Iranian perspective they still suffer from the persistent structural weakness of dictating the rules of the game to Iran and others in the Arab world and Asia, rather than engaging in a genuine dialogue. This flaw should not detract from the constructive effort that the Obama administration is making or blind us to the real shifts it has already initiated. At some point, however, Obama has to decide if he wants to dictate rules or engage in real dialogue, because the two cannot happen together - especially if the standards of behavior the US wants to see from Iran are often ignored by Washington itself along with its closest allies, such as Israel.
We can celebrate Nowruz together and usher in a genuinely new spring, or we can celebrate April Fool's day soon; but in the world of diplomacy and political relations we cannot do both at the same time.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice-weekly by THE DAILY STAR.
Copyright 2009, The Daily Star.
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