by John Limbert
Reading President Trump’s Iranian New Year’s (Nowruz) statement reminded me of what our granddaughter used to say when her diaper was full: “Yuck.”
It is a strange message. The reader is left asking, “What’s the purpose?” Similar messages by Trump’s predecessors usually said to Iranians, “We love you but we hate your government” or “We love you and we need to engage with your (difficult) government.”
This message says neither. Instead it offers insincere phrases about “a proud nation [that] has overcome great challenges by the strength of its culture and the resilience of its people.”
The message lacks authenticity (or esaalat, as the Iranians say). President Trump did not bother to read it publicly on radio or television. And it suggests the hand of an Iranian-American not only embittered at the Islamic Republic, but nursing old grudges against former president Obama, who measured his language and sought to use diplomacy to resolve Iranian-American differences.
The Nowruz statement lacks any connection to its purported author. Does anyone believe President Trump knows anything about Darius the Great? Does anyone believe he knows or cares about Iran’s rich culture?
The message’s tone is berating and hectoring. It blames Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for terrorism, poverty, youth unemployment, censorship, corruption, repression, and even for drought and dust storms. If the message has any purpose, it is to make the author (whoever it is) feel good that he has vented his grievances. It demonstrates the truth of what former president Obama said at Oslo in 2009 when he noted the futility of “the satisfying purity of indignation.”
The Revolutionary Guard Corps has an unsavory record and has much to answer for. On the other hand, it played a major role in defending Iran against Iraqi invaders, and many Iranian families have relatives who fought and died with the guards. If the point is to show support for the “Iranian people” what purpose does such a list of accusations and insults serve?
The statements of support for the Iranian people “fighting to reclaim their rights [and longing] for a springtime of hope” do not ring true. If that were the case, why has the administration obstinately and repeatedly sought to impose a travel ban against all Iranians? It is not a sign of respect and solidarity to exclude Iranian students, family members, and scholars on the basis of their nationality.
The statement goes on to say that the “United States stands with the Iranian people in their aspirations to connect to the wider world and have a responsible and accountable government that truly serves their nation’s interest.” Fair enough, in isolation. But Iranians are not stupid. They recognize dishonesty when they hear it. It is simply not believable that the same American president who, against all good advice, congratulated the Russian leader on his victory in a rigged election and who has a clear affection for authoritarians would support Iranians seeking a government that treats them decently.
Given other actions and statements by its reputed author, including his recent appointments of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, Iranians are unlikely to take much encouragement from this message. It is no more believable than was President Carter’s 1979 assurance that the United States had admitted the deposed Shah of Iran with no political agenda and “only for medical and humanitarian reasons.” No sane Iranian believed that one either.
The message raises other questions. What if the dog were to catch the truck? If Iranians take to the streets and demand change, what will this administration do to support them? Not much, I suspect, despite Trump’s strident denunciation of his predecessor’s decisions in 2009 during the Green Movement uprisings. If there is a change of government in Iran will things get any better? Or will there be a bloodbath and the rule of the neo-Jonestown cultists of the Mojahedin-e Khalq who seem to have attracted so much American support—including that of the President Trump’s new national security advisor?
Even a democratic and accountable government in Iran may not make our president happy. An Iranian government that pursues its national interests and seeks productive relations with the rest of the world may not always be ready to do America’s bidding. One suspects—from its rhetoric—that this administration would prefer a subservient to an independent Iran.
In the first half of the twentieth century, American governments were often on the side of those Iranians seeking dignity and independence. Matters changed after 1953 when the U.S. helped stage the overthrow of a nationalist government and shifted from friend to perceived puppet-master.
Against the U.S., Iran now carries a long list of grievances, some real and some imagined. That bitter legacy is hard to live down. The oozing cant of this year’s Nowruz message—whoever its real author—will do nothing to change that legacy.
John Limbert is a retired Foreign Service Officer. A former deputy assistant secretary of state for Iranian affairs, he also served at the US Embassy in Tehran where was held hostage for 14 months.