(CN) — President Obama's New Year's message to Iran delivered on his promise to raise the profile of diplomacy in US foreign policy. In some ways, it was new era diplomacy ... delivered directly to the people of Iran, not its leaders. In other ways, though, it was old school diplomacy: Nobody can agree on exactly what Obama meant and nobody can agree on the meaning of the Iranian response. It has put the Iranian leaders in a difficult position and, in the end, has to count as a good move.
Obama praised the Iranian nation and culture, going so far as quoting the Persian poet Saadi, and encouraged Iran to take its "rightful place in the community of nations." That place, however, cannot be achieved through "terror and arms," he warned.
If you just look at the surface of the message, he could have been saying something the Bush Administration would have said: We love the Iranian people, but their leaders need to change their ways. If they do, they can sit at the grown-ups' table.
But, delivered by a new president alongside some key diplomatic moves on Afghanistan, it can also be seen as more than that. The marks of respect he accorded Persian culture mean a lot, particularly in a country that is acutely sensitive to disrespect. The "terror and arms" comment is awfully vague, and could be viewed as much as a sop to conservatives as setting any kind of limits.
By calling them "The Islamic Republic of Iran," he signaled less interest in the long-cherished but increasingly meaningless Neo-conservative ambition of "regime change." Crucially, while as a policy matter Bush could easily have said "we love the Iranian people but the government's policies need to change," he never did. He must have been busy last Nowruz. Obama did make the speech.
The most prominent response came during a lengthy speech by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. While a crowd chanted "death to America," Khamenei listed the many US policies Iran objects to ... asset freezes ... sanctions ... support for Israel ... and said Obama hadn't yet shown whether or not he would be willing to change them. He ended with, basically, "if you change what you do, we will change what we do."
Many media outlets, especially in the US, took it as an outright rejection. FoxNews.com (to pick an easy target) carried the headline "Iranian Leaders Ignore Obama's Outstretched Hand" and even more sympathetic outlets as NPR, AP and the New York Times said Iran had "dismissed" or "rebuffed" Obama's outreach or met it with a "cool" answer.
But other media were not so quick to, for example the Irish Times with its headline "Iran prepared to engage with US, says Khamenei." The fact is neither Khamenei nor his hardline factotum, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, rejected the approach out of hand. They specifically left open both the possibility not just that Obama would change US policy, but that Iran would reciprocate.
Khamenei's speech was detailed, careful and contained none of the usual anti-American bile. True, Iran did not actually surrender, apologize or comply with any US demands, but it's a bit soon to expect that. A "cool" response should be seen as a good sign, evening a startling one, from a regime whose claim to legitimacy for three decades has rested in large part on battling "The Great Satan."
Some suspect that they didn't reject Obama's appeal because they can't. The people of Iran, overwhelmingly, like the idea of talks with the US, and every leader, Ahmadinejad included, has stated a willingness to talk at one time or another. It was an easy thing to say when faced with President Bush, who regarded talks with the US as a boon so valuable that foreign powers needed to make significant concessions just to sit down with him.
Obama's approach poses a harder problem than Bush's siege. As long as Obama is mild and conciliatory, the Iranians must either begin treating with the "Great Satan" or say they never will and fall back on the few moves they have available to them and their sickened economy to maintain their power, mainly threatening to spread terror and build an atom bomb.
That last is not a good outcome, of course, but it's where we already are now. If they reject Obama outright, he has lost nothing trying and they look unreasonable, including to many of their own people. If they negotiate, Obama looks like a genius and some good may actually come of it. It has the classic shape of a two-edged chess move, which is probably very irritating to leaders in the country where chess was invented.
Pretty good for just saying "Happy New Year."