Good Timing?

President Barack Obama’s video message to the Iranian people has surprised everybody in the West as well. It was launched on Nowruz, as New Year greetings. So far, reactions in Tehran were not really enthusiastic though, rather precautious instead. Was it the right time and tone? At least, it showed some of the President’s naïvety or that of his close advisors. A country which is soaked by so-called ta’arouf [1]. . will consider kindlinesses on the occasion of the nation’s most important, albeit profoundly secular, holiday as such, not more than ta’arouf [2].

The Iranians are fully aware, for instance, that deeds do not necessarily follow the words at the moment. Obama has confirmed last week that trade sanctions will be imposed on Iran for another year. His motivation for extending the sanctions, which have been imposed by former President Clinton in 1995 and which would have expired later this year if not renewed, was a continued “unusual and extraordinary threat to the U.S. national security” despite lack of evidence that Iran has illicitly diverted its current nuclear program which is officially declared as solely peaceful [3].

While the Obama administration was preparing the video message, it was aired that in late February, an Iranian drone aircraft had been shot down about 10 km beyond the Iraqi border by an American fighter jet. According to Iraqi officials, its entrance was most probably “a mistake”. But what are ferrets for? Timely launching the news about the incident to the public is the interesting issue here. It is usually not mentioned, however, that the U.S. has been flying surveillance drones over Iran at least since 2004 to seek evidence for an illicit nuclear weapons program and “detect weaknesses in air defenses, according to U.S. officials” as the Washington Post (WP) wrote in February 2005 [4]. According to the WP, “[t]he surveillance has been conducted as the Bush administration sharpens its anti-Iran rhetoric and the U.S. intelligence community searches for information to support President Bush’s assertion that Tehran is trying to build nuclear weapons.” It is conceivable that the results of these surveillance flight have been incorporated in the December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) which concluded that, “with high confidence”, Iran has halted its in fact existing nuclear weapons program in 2003.

Yesterday’s accident in the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s lifeline when it comes to oil supply, might illustrate the still acute threat the U.S. is imposing on Iran. The strait is only 54 km wide [5]. A nuclear-powered U.S. submarine collided with a Navy warship, a so-called amphibious assault ship.

Iran is considering Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s invitation to the upcoming international Afghanistan conference under UN auspices later this month in The Hague, but has not finally decided to participate. As to the U.S. State Department, Clinton has no plans to meet separately with an Iranian delegation there.

The new Obama Administration’s pace of change in attitude towards Iran with its rather mixed messages might in fact be highly demanding for Iran’s theocracy with its complicated structures within the administration. The country is preparing for presidential elections as well. The incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has so far not declared whether he will run another time. The previous ‘reform’ president Mohammad Khatami [6]. has just withdrawn. The country is torn in an economical downturn for the entire duration of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, with exploding inflation rates, high rates of unemployment, and increasing depression and hopelessness especially among the youngsters, which make up the vast majority of the population.

It may in fact be that Obama’s timing might even prevent positive implications of the good news he tries to convey to the people of Iran.


[1] A form of exaggerated politeness, almost self-humiliation, a sort of white lies in order to get things done in the way one wants them to proceed. As a brief example, when you are offered tea in a carpet shop in the bazaar, you better decline three times before you accept the offer. Everything else would be considered rather impolite.

[2] Another quite typical example for ta’arouf was, of course, the so far unanswered letter, the Iranian President has sent to Barack Obama immediately after he had won the November 4 election. Being fully aware of its ta’arouf, the letter had been heavily criticized by Iran’s majlis, or parliament. Writer Hooman Majd had tried, in his recent book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, to explain some of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s more bizarre performances in the West as ta’arouf. You may read more about his book here.

[3] The current concern about Iran’s nuclear program is largely due to its refusal to ratify the Additional Protocol of the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. It is interesting and even surprising that former U.S. President George W. Bush had, in one of his last actions, signed an Additional Protocol on December 30, 2008. It was largely considered a symbolic gesture, though.

[4] The drones were even visible from the ground and considered by many people as UFOs.

[5] Five Iranian speedboats were said to have approached U.S. Navy warships in January 2008. What really happened is still unclear. Iran’s Pasdaran, or Revolutionary Guards, say a video aired by the U.S. Navy had been fabricated. President Bush described the incident as “provocative” and that it was a “dangerous situation” which should not have happened.

[6] One should not forget that, at least according to the NIE, Iran had a nuclear weapons program under President Khatami “with high confidence”. Khatami’s administration also further established Iran’s sponsorship of international terrorism. Consequently, former U.S. President Bush put Iran on the infamous ‘axis of evil’, together with North Korea and Iraq.

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4 Responses to Good Timing?

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