The United States and Iran are throwing more rhetorical brickbats, blaming each other at the start of the Persian New Year for failure to embrace engagement initiatives, and reviving language drawn from decades of mutual demonization.
Tehran is incensed by criticism of that lethal crackdown on opposition supporters since the country's contested election last June, and says the United States persists in working to undermine the regime.
“Elements in Iran’s government have become a menace, both to their own people and in the region,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday.
Iran’s leaders must know there are “real consequences” for not resolving questions about its nuclear program, and that it was “unacceptable” for Iran to have nuclear weapon, Mrs. Clinton said in a speech to AIPAC, an influential pro-Israel lobby group. “Our aim is not incremental sanctions, but sanctions that will bite.”
The reinforced rhetoric echoed the vituperation coming from Tehran, where leaders over the weekend rejected a Nowruz (New Year) statement from President Barack Obama — who took office last year vowing to try to break 30 years of mutual hostility and seek dialogue with the Islamic Republic. Mr. Obama said his “offer of comprehensive diplomatic contacts and dialogue [still] stands.”
Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Seyeed Ali Khamenei responded in a Sunday speech. “The new US administration," he stated, "said they are willing to normalize relations. But unfortunately in practice they did the opposite. We said that if they are extending a metal hand inside a velvet glove, we won’t accept.”
Too much to lose
“The reality today is that both sides don’t think they have much to lose by denouncing the other side,” says Ray Takeyh, an Iran specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “[But] this reality is unsustainable. At some point, somebody’s situation will change, whether it’s theirs or ours.”
“On the US side, what happens if the sanctions regime doesn’t achieve Iranian compromises?” asks Mr. Takeyh, author of Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs. “And on the Iranian side, what happens if sanctions and other factors affect their economic situation—how would they respond?”
Khamenei said the White House had been deceptive in its previous efforts. “You cannot speak about peace and friendship while plotting to hit Iran,” he said. “We will examine the issue with sharp vision to determine if it really is a friendship hand and a friendly intention or hostile one in a deceptive framework.”
In Iran, the past year has seen a diplomatic shift of priorities at home from the nuclear issue to the suppression of opposition protests that left scores dead and thousands arrested, as hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets to reject what they believed to be the fraudulent re-election victory of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In a separate Nowruz message broadcast on Saturday, Ayatollah Khamenei said the past year “was the scene of glory, victory and historical presence” of Iranians, who in the election “showed their national will.”
“Enemies of Iran and the Islamic system focused to defeat the Revolution from inside but the nation foiled the plot through their unique awareness, insight and resistance,” Khamenei said, according to a translation on his website.
Death to America – and Obama
On Sunday, Khamenei’s speech was punctuated by chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Obama” from the audience.
“Eight months after the elections [the Americans] took the worst possible stance. The US president called those rioters and saboteurs ‘civil rights activists,’” Ayatollah Khamenei said in the nationally televised speech in the shrine city of Mashhad. “Sometimes the US government appears as a wolf or a fox and looks violent and arrogant, and sometimes they look different.”
In Obama’s message, he noted that a year ago he offered a “new chapter of engagement on the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect,” though since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, “Iran’s leaders have sought their own legitimacy through hostility to America.”
“We know what you’re against; now tell us what you’re for,” Obama said in his New Year message on Saturday. “For reasons known only to them, the leaders of Iran have shown themselves unable to answer that question. You have refused good faith proposals [and leaders have] turned their backs” on a path toward dialogue.
“Faced with an extended hand, Iran’s leaders have shown only a clenched fist,” Obama said. “Last June, the world watched with admiration, as Iranians sought to exercise their universal right to be heard. But tragically, the aspirations of the Iranian people were also met with a clenched fist.”
The US president reaffirmed “our commitment to a more hopeful future for the Iranian people,” and said Washington stands “for those rights that should be universal to all human beings.”
“The larger obstacle to progress on this issue is the Supreme Leader’s perception – and I think it was a perception cemented after the June 12 election – that the US has an immutable, ideological hostility to his regime, and is determined to undermine his regime,” says Takeyh. “And that’s a difficult obstacle to overcome.”
Takeyh said that on the video section of Khamenei’s website, the 19-minute anti-American portion could be watched separate from the entire 67-minute speech, to highlight its message.
The response by Mr. Ahmadinejad was similar to the stance taken during the presidency of George W. Bush, when Iran was branded part of an “axis of evil” and US-engineered regime change was discussed as a policy option.
“The Iranian nation will guard its national security with full strength and will decisively cut any unclean hand from any part of the globe which tries to harm it,” Ahmadinejad said on Saturday.
He trumpeted his election victory as a “true” model of democracy that should be emulated worldwide.
“The decisive vote by the nation for the president clearly outlined what path the government should take,” said Ahmadinejad. “The enemy tried to hide the success of the Iranian people with dust, but in reality they were rubbing their own faces with dust… They should know that the Iranian nation is even more determined than last year to pursue its high goals.”
The Friday prayer leader Ahmad Khatami in his latest sermon spoke of “this lying US president,” when he noted from his Tehran pulpit that Palestinians in Gaza had so far endured 1,000 days of an Israeli blockade. In recent weeks, Parliament speaker Ali Larijani spoke of American “murderers.”
“We took this course with the understanding that seeking engagement would strengthen our hand if Iran rejected our initiative,” Clinton said. “And over the last year, Iran’s leaders have been stripped of their usual excuses. The world has seen that it is Iran, not the United States, responsible for the impasse.”