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The Meaning of "Reaching Out"

Happy New Year, Iran!

by JOHN V. WHITBECK

On the occasion of the Persian New Year, President Obama has videotaped a personal statement to the Iranian people which is being portrayed in the Western media as a significant change, in both tone and substance, in American policy and an effort to "reach out" to Iran. However, reading the principal substantive portion cited below, one must have serious doubts that it will be viewed in this light by many Iranians.

"My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties…This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect. You, too, have a choice. The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right — but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization. And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create."

One may well agree that improving relations between the two countries "will not be advanced by threats", but who has has been threatening whom? Has Iran been threatening a "preventive" (i.e., unprovoked and aggressive) attack on the United States? Has Iran been insisting that "military action" remains "on the table" if the United States does not bow to Iranian demands?

One may also agree that no country’s "rightful place in the community of nations" should be reached "through terror and arms". Yet it is the United States which brought "shock and awe" (the American marketing term for "terror" when unleashed by the United States) to the region six years ago this month, and it is the United States which spends more on arms than the rest of the world combined.

One may also agree that the "true greatness" of a country is demonstrated through "peaceful actions". Iran has not invaded another country in over two centuries. The same can scarcely be said of the United States.

One may, finally, agree that "greatness is not the capacity to destroy". America has, most recently, destroyed Afghanistan and Iraq and applauded the destruction of Gaza, and, for decades, it has possessed enough nuclear weapons to destroy life on Earth many times over. Its capacity and proclivity for destruction shape its unique "place in the community of nations".

This peculiar effort to "reach out" to Iranians, which any rational Iranian who actually heard or read the words could be expected to view as condescending and insulting, is logically consistent with the line in President Obama’s inaugural address in which he offered an outstetched hand to unspecified Muslims (subsequently identified as Iranians) if they would unclench their fist. Who has been brandishing a clenched fist at whom?

It is entirely possible that President Obama has, in his own eyes, been trying to "reach out" to Muslims in general and Iranians in particular (except, of course, in respect of any matter relating to Israel-Palestine). However, the words and concepts used in his efforts continue to reflect the blind self-righteousness and myopic obliviousness to reality and the way others might perceive America, the world and their own place in it so characteristic of his intentionally rude and crude predecessor.

This is troubling, since the window of opportunity to build a better relationship between the West and the Muslim world and to prevent yet another unnecessary and potentially even more catastrophic war in the Middle East may not be open for long.

However, particularly since President Obama is a man of intelligence, a more cynical and sinister interpetation of this public show of "reaching out" must also be considered. After the Iraq debacle, further wars of aggression are a "hard sell". If "military action" (Israeli, American or combined) against Iran really does remain "on the table" (and President Obama, who could have taken it off the table, has not chosen to do so), it will be essential to convince American and other Western public opinion that the United States has "gone the extra mile" toward "reaching out" for a peaceful resolution of its dispute with Iran — and been irrationally repulsed, thereby conclusively demonstrating Iran’s evil intentions and justifying "military action" against it.

In this scenario, the pot-calling-the-kettle-black content of this videotaped statement might be explained by its actually be addressed to American and other Western public opinion (which would be unlikely to find anything jarring in it) rather than to Iranian public opinion. Dennis Ross, recently named as Hillary Clinton’s special advisor for Iran, is publicly on the record as favoring a brief but visibly intensified "diplomatic" effort to convince Iran to bow to Israeli/American demands — which would, inevitably and necessarily, be unsuccessful — before proceeding on to the attack on Iran which he deems essential to protect Israel’s security interests.

If Dennis Ross recommended that President Obama celebrate the Persian New Year in this peculiar manner (or even wrote the statement read by the president), the cynical and sinister view may, unfortunately, be the more realistic one.

JOHN V. WHITBECK, an international lawyer who has advised the Palestinian negotiating team in negotiations with Israel, is author of "The World According to Whitbeck".