BY TANNAZ JOURABCHI
On Friday, March 20th, the video of Barack Obama ’91 recognizing the Iranian New Year (Nowrouz) was posted on the Facebook walls of numerous Iranians, while the “I like it box” was checked by many others. On the same day, hundreds of Iranians from all around the world commented on the New York Times article “Obama’s Message to Iran Is Opening Bid in Diplomatic Drives”. Many of those who commented expressed how important it was to them that the American president had used a Farsi greeting and that he had quoted the great Persian Poet Saadi, saying that “The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence.”.
It seems as though President Obama has discovered the secret of this “great civilization” and that after 30 years of pointless animosity America may abandon its carrot and stick strategy in favor of an approach based on mutual cultural understanding. Cultural sensitivity certainly can have a significant impact on the outcome of international negotiations, but in the case of Iran, an awareness of the Persian pride will not be enough. To exploit this cultural goldmine, it is crucial to understand the roots of Iranian culture.
Figures of Persian mythology, like the heroes described in the “Book of the Kings” by the Persian Poet Ferdowsi, never surrender to tyrants nor to corruption, even at pain of death. Rostam, the warrior, who completed the seven trials, and Kaveh, the blacksmith, who stood against the Demon King Zahhak in order to save his son, are some of the characters from this book that are part of the innermost layer of Iranian identity. On top of that lies the Shia identity of the Iranian people, which has been reinforced and strongly instrumentalized since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The Narrative of Karbala, according to which a person should give up their head to evil forces before offering their hand, has made the prophet’s grandson, Hussein, the central martyr of Shia Islam. This uncompromising side of the Shia tradition has been present from its birth, when the First Imam, Ali, said “No” without hesitation when asked to make a pact with the committee in charge of nominating Muhammad’s successor. Shia ideology has retained Ali’s “No” as a symbol of refusal to compromise, and so long as Israel and the US are seen by Iranians as the contemporary Zahhak and Yazid against whom they have to struggle to protect their rights, the Iranian government will be able to justify its refusal to relinquish its nuclear programs and defy international mandates.
Even though president Obama has taken the right steps toward a gradual rapprochement of the two countries, self-interested actors will continue to obstruct the path to diplomatic communication. Iran’s leaders have questioned America’s sincerity in its new policy toward Iran and said that despite Obama’s slogans there has been no concrete change. Such a reaction was predictable, since the struggle against the “Great Satan” has been one of the most important political slogans used by Iran’s leaders to maintain the Islamic republic. The Iranian Revolution was against a Shah who was seen as an American puppet, and the Iran-Iraq war was against a Saddam who was armed by Americans. Today, Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear technology are in defiance of those “Evil Americans”, whose occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq is suspected to be a precursor to invasion of Iran.
But what if there were no more evil? What if America recognized Iran as a legitimate player in the international sphere? Would martyrdom still be necessary? Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric would lose its seductiveness, and considering his disastrous economic policy, his reelection would be endangered.
Unfortunately, Israeli leaders are taking actions toward Iran that are rendering Obama’s efforts fruitless. In their impatience to get rid of the Iranian threat, they are reinforcing a wall between Iran and the United States, sabotaging of any positive result. Shimon Peres clumsily hastened to follow Obama’s lead by sending his greetings to the Iran’s people while excluding their leaders. Besides remembering Cyrus the great as the liberating king that helped Jewish people, Peres should also have taken into consideration that the followers of Ali would never accept an insult to their leader, especially from someone viewed by them as the oppressor of the Palestinians. Moreover, the Israeli anti-missile test may revive the feeling that Israel is a military threat to Iran.
Their outcome of the Iranian presidential elections in June 2009 could surely make a difference in the future of the relations between Iran and the United States. The moderate candidate, Moussavi, has already expressed his willingness to talk with the US. But despite his stated willingness to adopt less extreme rhetoric in Iranian foreign policy, he insists on Iran’s right to have a civil nuclear energy program. In light of this reluctance to engage on the issues, President Obama will need to trade his Superman cape for Rostam’s horse and pass the mythical seven trials if he is to have any hope of stopping the Iranian “nuclear train”.
Tannaz E. Z. Jourabchi is an LL.M. candidate