Iran Disses Obama: No Change Is Seen

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.

Video: Iran responds to President Obamas message.Play

"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.

Short Message, Many Signals

Given the 30 years of strained communication between the two countries, Obama's unusually direct message was combed for signals of a policy shift.

VIDEO: Iran Rejects Olive BranchPlay

"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.

"The U.S. recently sanctioned more Iranian entities, the EU is contemplating additional sanctions, Washington is reportedly courting Russia toward more sanctions if diplomacy fails," he wrote. "And while Israel will tolerate a period of diplomacy, desisting from threats will certainly be too much."

The coda to Obama's message, a quotation from the poet Saadi, seemed especially resonant with the Iranian public. Traditional poetry is a frequent and revered element of cultural life in Iran.

"Those who know Persian culture know that quoting poetry is of tremendous importance in conducting a political discourse," said Parsi.

Even though Iranian leaders have downplayed the value of words alone, Parsi and others said Obama's tone and word choice do carry deep diplomatic significance.

"At this point what is being done is to infuse confidence and trust into an atmosphere that has been completely devoid of trust," said Parsi. "In that phase symbols play a very, very important role."

New Day, New Election

Obama's Norouz message came as Iran ramps up for a critical presidential election. On June 12 Iranians will vote on whether to extend Ahmadinejad's presidency another four years or pick a replacement, the leading challenger at the moment being Mir Hossein Mousavi, a centrist former prime minister. Analysts debated how the president's message could impact the Iranian election.

"By speaking to Iran's leaders generally, [Obama] avoided slighting Ahmadinejad, even though the United States would clearly rather deal with the more centrist Mousavi," Kupchan wrote. "But given the substance of the message, Iranian voters are, on balance, likely to conclude that the moderate Mousavi is better positioned to carry on a dialogue with the U.S. -- compared to the firebrand Ahmadinejad."

Parsi said the prospect for improved dialogue between the two countries might push Iranian voters away from the current president. "They may want someone who is not using harsh rhetoric that Bush or Ahmedinejad have been using … and may fear a continuation of the Ahmedinejad presidency would undermine the prospect of a new beginning. So it's difficult to tell exactly how this will play out."

But Parsi and others say the situation is ambiguous. With an Iranian electorate largely in favor of a better relationship with the United States, diplomacy with the West could be a potent political card in the hand of any candidate, including Ahmadinejad, who could claim credit for any progress. Yet others might support Ahmadinejad because he could push foreign policy changes through the hardline camp more effectively than a reformist president.

That choice is one of many variables ahead as the Obama administration pursues its new diplomacy. The Norouz message was groundbreaking, but the path to normalization is long and fraught. In recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Sadjadpour, of the Carnegie Endowment, warned of opposition to warming U.S.-Iranian ties.

"These are hard-liners in Tehran who thrive in isolation … they recognize that were Iran to open up to the world, it would dilute the hold they have on power now," Sadjadpour said. "And in the past these spoilers have been incredibly adept at sabotaging or torpedoing any type of confidence-building."

Pushing through those obstacles, analysts agree, would require a sustained campaign on the part of the U.S. president -- one he seems willing to conduct. "This president is committed to a direct engagement with Iran, and this is one example," said acting State Department spokesman Robert Wood.

"I would just say stay tuned."