An analysis of Obama’s Nowruz speeches

The holiday promotes values such as peace and solidarity among the generations and within families, as well as reconciliation and good-neighborliness.

April 11, 2013 13:45
US president Barack Obama

US president Barack Obama addresses reporters in the White House press briefing room,. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Nowruz, the Persian New Year, is one of the most respected holidays originating in ancient Persia. More than 300 million people worldwide celebrated this holiday on March 21, which is the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere. This spring holiday embodies ritual ceremonies and ancient customs, and is the only holiday in Iran not limited to religious groups.

It has been celebrated in Iran for over 3,000 years, surviving tremendous adversity and upheaval.

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In 2009, UNESCO declared Nowruz a worldwide holiday, and on March 21, 2010, the UN’s General Assembly recognized the International Day of Nowruz in Azerbaijan, Albania, Afghanistan, Macedonia, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Turkey. The holiday promotes values such as peace and solidarity among the generations and within families, as well as reconciliation and good-neighborliness.

As he has every year since he was elected, US president Barack Obama congratulated the people of Iran on the occasion of the Persian New Year this past March 21, an address he always ends with a blessing in Farsi.

In light of Iran’s intentions to acquire nuclear capability, Obama says that diplomacy is the best option.

The international community demands that Iran halt nuclear advancement, and to that end has threatened to enforce international sanctions. Another solution under consideration in the international community is a military option.

In a comparison of the contents of Obama’s five Nowruz speeches, it appears that there are trends representing the mood and the changing rhetoric of the US administration.

OVER THE years, there has been a clear change of rhetorical style in the president’s Nowruz speeches with regard to the Iranian regime. In the first year’s speech, Obama mentioned acts carried out by the Iranian regime only indirectly when he said, “There are real differences between us,” as well as, “The process will not progress through threats.”

In the second year, he used stronger language: “The regime is hostile towards America,” and, “The Iranian regime has chosen to isolate itself.”

In the third year, he made explicit accusations against the Iranian regime when he said, “The Iranian government has shown that it cares much more about preserving its own power than respecting the rights of the Iranian people.” He also said that “over the last two years, Iran has been carrying out a campaign of intimidation and abuse,” and he even mentioned names and examples of Iranian civilians the regime had persecuted.

Even in the fourth year, the president explicitly chose to interfere in Iran’s domestic policies when he said, “The regime intervenes in radio and television broadcasts, censors the Internet, and controls what people are allowed to see and say.” In addition, he said, “the regime monitors computers and telephones in an effort to protect the regime.”

There was a dramatic change in the fifth year. On the one hand, the president directed his words more at the regime and less at the Iranian people, and he talked at length about the Iranian nuclear issue. On the other hand, he sounded a lot more apologetic.

“As I’ve said all along, the United States prefers to resolve this matter peacefully, diplomatically,” he said, adding later, “The United States, alongside the rest of the international community, is ready to reach such a solution.”

There was also a significant change in Obama’s rhetoric with respect to the Iranian people. An analysis of his greetings to them over the past five years indicates that in the first few years, he began by saying, “I would like to speak directly with the leaders of the Iranian republic,” and then gradually changed his message to addressing the Iranian public. For example, he said this year that “the people of Iran have paid a high and unnecessary price because of your leaders’ unwillingness to address this issue.”

We can also see the change in Obama’s attitude toward the Iranian public by analyzing the number of times he refers to Iranian citizens. In 2009, for instance, the president mentioned the Iranian people twice, whereas in 2012 he mentioned them no fewer than nine times.

In the first year, the president used general and vague language, such as, “For centuries, art, music, literature and innovation have made your world a better and more beautiful place.” However, over the years, his messages to the Iranian people have become more focused and directed to specific events that have taken place in their country. In 2010, for example, he stated that “last June, the world watched with admiration as the Iranians sought to exercise their universal right to be heard.”

Another time, the president spoke directly to Iranian youth and praised them, saying, “Your talent, your hopes and your choices will shape the future of Iran and help light the world.”

In another speech, the president praised the Iranian people’s achievements in various areas. “The Iranian production A Separation won the Best Foreign Language Film award of 2012.”

Finally, Obama has told the Iranian people that he wants not only to talk to them, but to have a conversation with them: “America wants to hear your opinions and aspirations. In an effort to dialogue with the Iranian people, we have set up a Virtual Embassy Tehran website so that you can see for yourself what the US is saying and doing. We also have a Facebook page, and Twitter and Google+ accounts in Farsi.”

OBAMA HAS only briefly referred to the Iranian nuclear issue over the last four years and has been using comprehensive diplomacy as a way of managing the crisis.

He referred to the nuclear program in 2010, saying, “The US recognizes your right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.” In 2012, he said, “Iran must demonstrate through concrete steps that it will live up to its responsibilities with regard to its nuclear program.”

In contrast, there was a dramatic change in Obama’s speech this year. The speech dealt almost entirely with the Iranian nuclear program, and we can see this clearly in the number of times he used the word “nuclear.”

While the president used the word only twice over the past four years, this year he mentioned it seven times.

In addition, in his most recent speech, he said, “Iran’s leaders say that their nuclear program is for medical research and electricity. To date, however, they have been unable to convince the international community that their nuclear activities are solely for peaceful purposes.”

The president even stressed this danger more than in the past when he said, “This includes the world’s serious and growing concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, which threatens peace and security in the region and beyond.”

THROUGHOUT THE years, Obama has chosen to use direct and indirect rhetoric, diplomatic and explicit consent to describe the lack of agreement among Iran, the US and the international community.

For example, he has said, “My government is committed to diplomacy,” as well as, “Our offer for full comprehensive diplomatic relations still stands.”

In another speech, Obama said, “Iran has turned its back on a pathway that would bring more opportunity to all Iranians,” and, “Let me say again that if the Iranian government pursues a responsible path, it will be welcomed once more among the community of nations.”

In his most recent speech, the president said, “Indeed, if – as Iran’s leaders say – their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, then there is a basis for a practical solution.”

He concluded his speech with, “Whereas if the Iranian government continues down its current path, it will only further isolate Iran.”

Obama also used direct and explicit rhetoric in his speeches when he talked about the crisis being mainly the Iranians’ fault: “You have a choice. Last year, I said that the choice to have a better future is in the hands of Iran’s leaders. These words are no less true today.” In another speech, he said, “I would like to speak clearly to the leaders of Iran. I chose this occasion to speak directly to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran and to offer a new chapter of partnership.”

In his last speech, the president said, “I hope they choose a better path – for the sake of the Iranian people and for the sake of the world.”

ANALYSIS OF Obama’s speeches through the years shows that the president chose to focus on a different issue each year. In his first Nowruz speech, he suggested that the Iranian regime dialogue with the US in order to reach a solution. In his second speech, he focused on riots in Iran over election fraud. In the third speech, he chose to speak about human rights there and explicitly criticized the regime. In the president’s fourth speech, he described Iran as a country living behind an electronic screen in which the government censors all media.

However, except for two indirect references in his speeches over the years, Obama only focused on the nuclear issue in his most recent speech. And yet, although he used the word “nuclear” seven times, his main focus was on isolation. Obama reiterated a number of times in this speech that the US’s response to Tehran’s non-compliance in nuclear matters would be to isolate Iran.

“That’s why the world is united in its resolve to address this issue and why Iran is now so isolated,” he said, adding, “Iran’s isolation isn’t good for the world either.”

He concluded, “If the Iranian government proceeds along the current path, it will result in deeper isolation.”

YET THE nature of that isolation also includes diplomacy and indirect contact.

For example, Obama used the word “sanctions,” and did so only once in each of his speeches. From an analysis of all five speeches, one can discern that the US administration is apparently not interested in a military confrontation with Iran, and has adopted a policy of diplomacy over the rhetoric of armed conflict.

However, it seems that Obama prefers to continue with his plan of “preparing the ground” for dialogue with the Iranian people at the expense of the government.

This carries a number of important implications.

First, the Iranian opposition sympathizes with Obama, which in turn puts pressure on the regime. Second, by directly addressing the Iranian people, Obama embarrasses and weakens the government. Third, the president is signaling to other regimes around the world, and to their citizens, that he publicly supports regimes that are interested in becoming democratic.

Fourth, because his words seem honest and reliable, he has the support of the American and worldwide public.

And fifth, if in the end a decision is taken to carry out a military attack, the president is clear about the fact that the fate of the regime and that of the Iranian people are connected; they are inseparable partners in the process, and as such, both bear the responsibility of the end results. ■

Translated by Hannah Hochner.

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