Obama alters tone, backs Iranian dissidents on Persian New Year

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President Obama has reversed course on his administration’s policy of limiting criticism of Iran’s human rights abuses, speaking out Sunday in support of imprisoned dissidents seeking democracy in the Islamic republic.

In an annual Persian New Year message, Mr. Obama named several Iranians who had been arrested in a series of crackdowns that have shaken the country since 2009. The comments contrasted sharply with a 2009 presidential message to Iran and its leaders in the annual video message for Nowruz, the Persian New Year holiday.

“For nearly two years, there has been a campaign of intimidation and abuse,” Mr. Obama said in the message, broadcast over the Internet. “Young and old; men and women; rich and poor — the Iranian people have been persecuted. Hundreds of prisoners of conscience are in jail. The innocent have gone missing. Journalists have been silenced. Women tortured. Children sentenced to death.”

He ended the message with a quote from Simin Behbahani, an octogenarian Iranian poet who is banned from leaving her country and widely considered the poet laureate of Iran’s democratic opposition movement.

The 2011 Nowruz message contrasted sharply with the more conciliatory tone of the one Mr. Obama delivered on March 20, 2009. In that message, he said, “On the occasion of your new year, I want you, the people and leaders of Iran, to understand the future that we seek. It’s a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce.”

An Iranian cleric tours a battlefield from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war on Sunday, the eve of the Persian New Year. President Obama's holiday message criticized Iran's "campaign of intimidation and abuse." (Associated Press)

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An Iranian cleric tours a battlefield from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war on ... more >

The Obama administration has launched several diplomatic gambits since 2009 aimed at reaching out to the Tehran government, which took power in 1979 by ousting the shah, a longtime U.S. ally, in an Islamic revolution.

Iran has spurned the offers, including a call for closer ties with the United States if Tehran would come into compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The 2009 public Nowruz message was followed by a private letter from Mr. Obama to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, urging reconciliation and diplomacy. The State Department also cut off funding in 2009 for a project based at Yale University to monitor human rights in Iran.

Iran’s pro-democracy Green Revolution was launched after pro-regime militias began attacking demonstrators following contested June 12, 2009, presidential elections. At that time, the Obama administration was slow to publicly back Green Party candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi or his supporters.

The White House is still hoping for successful negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. The last meeting between U.S. and Iranian diplomats on the issue took place in January in Istanbul.

Mohsen Sazegara, an Iranian dissident who helped found Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in 1979 and is now at the George W. Bush Institute at Southern Methodist University, said he is pleased with the change in tone from the White House.

“I think his message for Nowruz was a good one,” he said. “It was quite different than a few years ago, when he sent the letter to Khamenei. I like that he named the names from every part of the opposition.”

Mr. Sazegara added, “I think President Obama has learned to support democracy.”

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the 2011 Nowruz message was the strongest language from Mr. Obama regarding human rights in Iran. “The message was one of engagement with the Iranian people, not their government,” he said.

Mr. Sadjadpour added: “I think the White House appears no longer interested in making conciliatory overtures to a regime that is unwilling or incapable of reciprocating them.”

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