- The Washington Times - Friday, March 19, 2010

The White House Thursday wouldn’t tip its hand on whether President Obama, after a year of largely fruitless diplomacy, will tape another outreach video to Iran’s leadership to mark this year’s Persian New Year on Sunday.

Shortly after taking office last year, Mr. Obama recognized the holiday, known as Nowruz, with an unprecedented video message, in which he urged the people and government of Iran to seek the “promise of a new beginning” as his administration pursued a policy of engagement with the nation’s controversial government.

One year later, experts debated the merits of a similar message after diplomacy appears to be at a dead end and Iranian leaders have spent the last nine months cracking down on pro-democracy protesters in the wake of a contested election last summer.

The White House wouldn’t discuss its plans Thursday, with a spokesman for the National Security Council saying simply: “Stay tuned.”

But analysts said it’s a touchy question of how to recognize the ancient holiday celebrated by people of Persian heritage in Iran and across the world.

“That was a big deal last year,” said Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I think there were some negative aspects of a message that would suggest that we’re prepared to live with you, the Iranian leadership.

“On the other hand, the positive side of that was Obama took away the enemy narrative that has been so useful to Iranian leaders. The narrative of the Iranian leadership had been that the United States is our implacable enemy, and if we were to resolve the nuclear issue, they would still hate us. Well, Obama took away that narrative, and it did make a difference.”

With Mr. Obama pushing for sanctions against Iran for its suspected nuclear weapons program, Brian Katulis, a specialist in Middle East policy and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the administration this year should use Nowruz to “inoculate” any negative impact that possible sanctions could have on the Iranian people.

“Sending that message, if they were to do that, I think that would be important, because there’s a legitimate criticism that any attempt to put the pressure on the regime could help rally support for the regime if there’s negative consequences, like with sanctions,” Mr. Katulis said.

In his video message last year - recorded in English with Farsi subtitles - Mr. Obama acknowledged decades of strained relations between the U.S. and Iran, but said the two peoples on Nowruz should be “reminded of the common humanity that binds us together.”

Then, directly addressing the regime’s leaders, he said: “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 though 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.”

Mr. Obama famously entered office with a promise to engage Iran and other states with whom the country has had frozen ties. But one year after taking office, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has continued to flaunt international admonitions and pursue a nuclear program along with other confrontational steps, such as producing a new series of short-range cruise missiles.

Now that a deadline for the nation to halt its nuclear program has passed, the administration, along with allies at the United Nations, is pushing for sanctions aimed at undermining the nation’s Revolutionary Guard, though it’s unclear whether China and Russia will ultimately sign on to the measure. Lawmakers in Congress have introduced bills that would impose unilateral U.S. sanctions.

Meanwhile, Iranian leaders continue to respond harshly toward pro-democracy protesters, who accuse the regime of rigging the June elections. Stories of brutal crackdowns have captivated the West as dissidents have used Twitter and other social-networking sites to document claims of beatings and killings. On Wednesday, a state media report said the government had convicted 86 activists who were arrested for illegal demonstrations.

Mr. Obama was previously slated to be en route to Indonesia on Sunday, the day on which Nowruz falls, but postponed the trip to help Democratic leaders navigate the endgame on health care reform legislation.

Mr. Clawson said the best solution to the dilemma would have been for the president to hold a party at the White House to honor Nowruz, as President George W. Bush did during his last year in office. That way, he said, Mr. Obama could host some Iranian dissidents without appearing too provocative.

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