And yet, even when diplomacy is in overdrive, as it is now with Iran and six world powers striving for a comprehensive nuclear deal by July, words can do as much harm as good.
President Barack Obama hit many of the right notes yesterday in his annual message to mark “Nowruz,” the Persian new year. He spoke of the “Islamic Republic of Iran” – implicitly recognizing the revolutionary state estranged from the US since 1979 – and offered the prospect of a new US-Iran relationship “rooted in mutual interest and mutual respect.” He enthused about the “talents and genius of the Iranian people” throughout history.
Likewise, Secretary of State John Kerry said “my own family is stronger” with the “presence and love” of Iranian-Americans. He used the term “Persian Gulf” – instead of “Arabian Gulf,” which is favored by US allies in the region – and expressed hope that the “harsh winters in our past” can end. The US Treasury – which oversees US sanctions on Iran – issued a new license to enhance student and educational exchanges.
But the message of goodwill was undermined by a few words from President Obama that were certainly taken as a poke in Tehran. He blamed the “economic hardship” suffered by Iranians not on the sanctions imposed by the US and Europe, but on the “choices of Iranian leaders.”
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has accused Obama of “insulting” Iran from his first day in office, had strong words of complaint in his own Nowruz address this morning. Although he did not comment on Obama's words against Iranian leadership, Mr. Khamenei also ignored Washington's positive Nowruz tone.
Referring to top US officials’ usual talking points that “all options,” including military ones, can be used against Iran’s nuclear program if diplomacy fails, and talk from US politicians that Iran had caved in on its principles, Mr. Khamenei said people “realized the Americans are being impolite.”
Calling the US the "enemy" and a "dictatorial and arrogant" power, Khamenei said today the Americans “used rhetoric and language that was less courteous and more aggressive… and insulting to the people” as the large crowd in the shrine city of Mashhad chanted “Death to America!”
If Obama's comments cause a lasting problem, it will not be the first time that one side's mollifying balm is taken as a barb by the other.
In 2000, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright acknowledged Iran’s grievances against the US, including the CIA-orchestrated coup in 1953 and support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
It was not an official apology, but Ms. Albright addressed many points that festered in Iran. Yet she also referred to Iran’s “unelected leaders” – and those two words helped ensure that US overture went nowhere, despite the apologetic words around it.