The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for evidence of a substantive shift in U.S. policy toward the country, a day after President Barack Obama broadcast a message of goodwill on the occasion of the Persian New Year.
"Change in words is not enough … change must be real," said Khamenei, speaking Saturday in the holy city of Mashad.
The cool reception by the top Iranian leader was belied, however, by signs that the Iranian public had responded favorably to an act of public diplomacy that analysts hailed as a potentially watershed moment in U.S.-Iranian affairs.
By the normal pace of U.S.-Iranian diplomacy it was a rapid-fire exchange. Hours after Obama delivered his online greeting, Iranian officialdom issued its first response, in the form of a measured, somewhat dismissive reaction from an aide to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Khamenei spoke the next morning.
"Have you unblocked the assets of the Iranian nation?" he said. "Have you lifted the oppressive sanctions? Have you stopped your unconditional support for Israel? They give the slogan of change but we have seen nothing in practice. We have seen no change."
But there were signs that Obama's message -- especially his emphasis on respect and praise for Persian culture -- was noted and well received by the public.
"I was very happy to see for the first time the United States government speaking directly to Iran, and then for recognizing the greatness of the Iranian civilization," said Sina Tabesh, a business consultant in Tehran.
"I would give Obama an A-plus for the Norouz message," said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I think it made all the right points to establish a new tone and context for the U.S.-Iran relationship. He made it clear that his administration is interested in turning the page after 30 years of enmity, and he did it on very special day."
Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Group agreed. "The short, 556-word message laid out, in an initial manner, the new U.S. approach to Iran," Kupchan wrote, pointing to Obama's pledge that his administration "is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us" and to pursuing "constructive ties" between the United States and Iran.
Analysts also noted Obama's reference to the "Islamic Republic of Iran," an implicit recognition of the role of clerics in Iran's political system and rejection of the "regime change" policy associated with former President George W. Bush.
"By using the 'Islamic Republic' … he's not supporting the regime, but he's recognizing that is the government right now and that's what he has to deal with," said Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council.
Also noted was Obama's statement that diplomacy would not be advanced by threats. The idea runs counter to the international community's ongoing carrot-and-stick approach to dealing with Iran, using sanctions and the looming military option to foster a change in behavior.
Kupchan saw potential controversy in Obama's gambit.