President Obama in an historic address reaches out to Iran. It has to be a good thing. Right? I’m far from sure.
This is what Obama said in his Nowruz (new year) address:
Obama said: “The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations.”
Oh, and here comes Israeli President Shimon Peres with a similar message: “On the eve of the new year, I appeal to the noble Iranian people on behalf of the ancient Jewish people and urge them to reclaim their worthy place among the nations of the enlightened world.”
So, it turns out that the Iranian people and their leaders are being targeted by a joint US-Israeli appeal. How’s that going to go down?
Let’s see. Israel’s prime minister to-be Benjamin Netanyahu has likened Iran to Germany in 1938, meaning Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is like Hitler and Iran is on a path aimed at global domination.
Does the US really want to be perceived as making its diplomatic moves towards Iran as a coordinated US-Israeli effort? That might please the Israelis but it doesn’t seem like a smart way of advancing America’s diplomatic interests.
The fundamental problem with turning diplomacy into this kind of public spectacle is that it can promote more confusion than clarity. Before the message can be articulated, every target audience has to be taken into consideration. In this case it means that the White House needed tailor the words, the tone, and the medium of delivery so that something approximating the desired response could be registered in the following audiences (and I won’t even attempt to guess the order):
- Iran’s leaders
- the Iranian people
- Israel’s leaders
- the Israeli people
- the Israel lobby
- the EU
- US Gulf allies
- commentators who are promoting engagement
- commentators who warn about “appeasement”
- the Iraqi government
- Iranian expatriates
- Iranian non-state allies
OK. If anyone in the White House is reading this, they’re probably thinking “if only we could be that thorough. We actually only ran it by Hillary, Dennis and Rahm and they seemed to like it.”
Still, I’m really just trying to make a point. That is, when you’re crafting a message and trying to find a way of making it play with a multitude of audiences who have conflicting agendas, it’s really difficult to say anything with substance. It ends up coming out like… a presidential statement.
What will the outcome be? Maybe we can expect an Ahadinejad YouTube in the next few weeks.
Is this what we really need — more YouTube diplomacy? Or is it time for serious, substantive talks behind closed doors where the focus is on results — not public diplomatic flourishes.
And let’s not forget that it was only two weeks ago that Obama’s secretary of state was reported as saying that she was “very doubtful” that a US diplomatic overture would be successful in persuading Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.
Who are the Iranians supposed to be paying attention to? The US president or his chief diplomat?
(And another reminder: Iranians are quite used to serenades from American presidents: “We respect your country. We admire your rich history, your vibrant culture and your many contributions to civilization.” That was George Bush in 2006.)