The Magazine

Happy New Year, Mullahs

Obama's message of weakness.

Mar 30, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 27 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"Liberty" isn't a word you'll find in President Obama's Iranian New Year message to "the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran." Nor is "freedom." Nor "democracy." Nor "human rights."

Nor will you find any expression of solidarity with the people of Iran--though you'll find plenty of solicitude for their rulers. The president bends over backwards to reassure the mullahs that our government wishes them well.

You'll find a paragraph addressed to "the people and leaders of Iran," as if the people and leaders were in harmony, and shared a need to be reassured that we seek "a future with .  .  . greater opportunities for partnership and commerce."

You'll find two paragraphs devoted to speaking directly to Iran's leaders. Obama reassures them of his commitment to diplomacy, and to an engagement grounded in "mutual respect." Of course expressions of respect for the people of Iran are nothing new--President Bush reiterated our respect for the people of Iran many times, including a year ago on the occasion of Nowruz, as they call their New Year. No, what's distinctive about Obama's statement is his respect for the "leaders," the clerical dictatorship.

Indeed, "the United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations." Note: "the Islamic Republic of Iran." Does Obama routinely refer to Pakistan as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, its formal name? Of course not. But Obama goes out of his way to mention (twice) "the Islamic Republic of Iran." He's kowtowing to a regime that is anything but republican, implicitly forswearing any plan--any hope--of regime change to free the Iranian people.

Now it's true that Obama's message isn't all sweetness and light. He does urge upon Iran the realization that it cannot take "its rightful place in the community of nations" unless it assumes its "real responsibilities" and realizes "that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions." That's vague enough to be nonthreatening--which is good, because Obama believes the process of building "constructive ties among the United States, Iran, and the international community .  .  . will not be advanced by threats."

So there's no reiteration of the demand--heretofore the position not just of the United States but of its European allies--that Iran stop its program for developing nuclear weapons in return for such constructive ties. After all, to demand a stop to the program is implicitly to threaten that there might be consequences if the program isn't stopped--and Obama doesn't believe in threats. He believes that we should speak nicely to our enemies, and carry no stick.

Shortly after the release of the videocast, Iran's energy minister, Parviz Fattah, said that his country would "finish and operate" the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear plant by the end of this year. He, along with a leading adviser to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, stressed that this nice talk from the American president had to be followed by positive actions. Obama would like mutual respect--but the Iranians smell weakness.

The day before Obama's message was released, reports reached the West that a young Iranian blogger, Omid Mir Sayafi, had died in Tehran's notorious Evin prison. He had been jailed for insulting the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic. Another Iranian blogger reported that Sayafi was jailed for writing, "Mr. Khamenei, can you love me as much as you love Sheikh Nasrallah's son?"--questioning Iran's support for Hezbollah. But President Obama has respect for Sayafi's persecutors.

Meanwhile, an imprisoned American, 31-year-old Roxana Saberi, is still being held in Iran, where she was arrested for working as a journalist after the government revoked her press credentials. Appeals from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and North Dakota's congressional delegation (Saberi grew up in North Dakota) for her release have been ignored, as have demands from executives of major news organizations that Iran explain how she allegedly broke the law, and that an outside group be allowed to visit her. Instead, it looks as if Saberi will remain in prison for at least the two-week period while the government more or less shuts down .  .  . for Nowruz. But President Obama has respect for Saberi's jailers.

The question is, who in the world will have respect for President Obama?

--William Kristol