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Investigative historian and journalist, Gareth Porter, speaks to Sharmini Peries about President Obama’s Nowruz greeting to Iran. Noting the significance of this unprecedented move by the US government, and the saying that this is the first time the Iranian leader himself has responded directly to the US, Porter said, “Obama was displaying atmospherics here far more than substance,” adding that, “there really is nothing in the address that gives you a clue as to what change is going to be made in the US posture when they actually sit down with Iran.”

Story Transcript


Iran responds to Obama

SHARMINI PERIES, JOURNALIST, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m joined by Gareth Porter. He is an investigative historian and journalist reporting on US national security policy. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service and Asia Times and has authored several books. Today he joins us to discuss President Obama’s Nowruz address to Iran. Thank you for joining us, Gareth.

GARETH PORTER: Thank you, Sharmini.

PERIES: In President Obama’s address, there was a particular segment that was addressed to the leaders of Iran.


PRES. BARACK OBAMA: So, in this season of new beginnings, I would like to speak clearly to Iran’s leaders. We have serious differences that have grown over time. My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran, and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect. You too have a choice. The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations.


PERIES: So, Gareth, that was President Obama’s address, a portion of his address directed to the leaders. And this was Supreme Leader Khamenei’s response.


[another language]


PERIES: So what do you think of all this?

PORTER: Well, first of all, Obama was really displaying atmospherics here far more than substance. I mean, if you read the speech, the address, he’s complimenting the great Persian civilization. He’s really stroking Iranian feelings, the Iranian people’s feelings of pride, and I’m sure that’s going to go over very well among Iranian people. It went over very well in the United States and in Europe.

PERIES: This is a different step Obama’s taking, this kind of an address. A new-year address to the Persian people has never been done before by any president.

PORTER: And, therefore, it’s a net positive in that sense. But at the same time, there was really nothing in the address that gives you any clue as to what change is really going to be made in US diplomatic posture when they actually sit down at the table with Iran.

PERIES: And no Iranian leader has, especially Khamenei himself, responded to any statement by a president of the United States in the past as well.

PORTER: I think that’s correct. This was the first time that the leader himself has responded to a statement by the US president. And that is very significant. It tells Obama and the US government that the leader himself is directly engaged in decision-making on how to respond to the United States. And that will be the case when they sit down to talk with the United States as well.

PERIES: And so this is really an acknowledgment we’ve heard in the past that it is the supreme leader who is actually responsible for foreign affairs and foreign policy. So this is all on a new footing now.

PORTER: That’s true, but we need to be clear about one thing. The leader does exercise overall supervision of foreign policy and national security policy. That’s true. That doesn’t mean that he writes the statements that Iran is going to read or positions that they’re going to take in negotiating with the United States. He sets an overall strategic framework. There are certainly red lines that he’s going to establish, but once he does that, clearly, top-ranking foreign policy officials themselves will determine exactly what they’re going to say when they sit down with the United States. So the leader is not micromanaging, I think it’s fair to say, based on what we know about the past.

PERIES: So this is a grand and wonderful opening. So what next?

PORTER: Well, I think we still have to wait and see what the Obama administration really intends here. And one of the points that later Khamenei actually makes in his response is that he says twice in his statement, “I don’t understand. I don’t really know who’s making policy toward Iran in the US administration.”

PERIES: What did he mean by that?

PORTER: Well, by that I think he means how much influence does the Israeli lobby have over US policy. And this is a question that, quite frankly, you know, people in Washington, DC, analysts, are asking the same question. And very recently, as people know very well, the Israeli lobby scored a huge victory when they basically put enough pressure on the White House to basically cause Chas Freeman, the nominee for the head of the National Intelligence Council, nominated by the director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, to have to back off and basically withdraw his name from the position. And that was done, obviously, through the high-ranking politicians of the United States being pressed by the Israeli lobby to intervene with the White House, and no White House support for Chas Freeman. So it just shows the degree to which policy in the Middle East relevant to Israel, which, of course, Iran is very much one of those policies, is still very much influenced by the Israeli lobby. And I think clearly Khamenei was referring to that fact, a little bit diplomatically, in his statement.

PERIES: What indications do we have that President Obama could listen to some other voices here?

PORTER: Well, we know that there have been some—you know, at least in the case of Israel-Palestine, George Mitchell has been named the person who’s directly responsible. He’s somebody who has been reasonably honest and not identified with the Israeli lobby in the past. That’s a hopeful sign, certainly, insofar as that could be read as an indicator of, you know, an interest in trying to be more objective, if you will, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But on Iran, thus far, at least, one cannot identify who in the White House, in the State Department, or in the National Security Council is a voice that will stand up to Dennis Ross, who was named the person to be the senior advisor in the State Department on that part of the world. So the indications so far would seem to suggest that Ross is primus inter pares, the most influential among the voices who are going to be speaking to the president on this issue.

PERIES: So, if President Obama is to listen to voice of reason, what other quarters might he go to?

PORTER: Well, I mean, if he’s really understanding of the necessity to go beyond the circle of advisors that he already has and to get advice, then he would need to go to, you know, academics, specialists on Iran, analysts who are independent, who have a record of independence. I’m afraid that a president like Obama who’s very, very preoccupied with the domestic economy day to day simply is not going to be doing that. And I think the recent events surrounding Chas Freeman’s nomination simply show it’s likely that the president didn’t even know what was going on. He was not even told by his advisors. And therefore, you know, the president cannot be expected to take that sort of initiative. That’s the real problem we face here. That’s the way the policy-making situation is shaping up on Iran in the Obama administration.

PERIES: And what news of the nuclear developments in Iran? Is there a current reason for the US government to worry at this moment? What is ElBaradei saying about what’s happening in Iran?

PORTER: Well, it all depends on whether you accept the idea that Iran is hell-bent on getting nuclear weapons, or whether you view the situation as one in which the past indications have been, right up to the present, that Iran wants to have the knowledge of how to make a nuclear weapon, at least in the sense of enrichment capability. But really there’s no reason for them to go to the next step, to actually manufacturing nuclear weapons. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that that’s not the case. And if you accept that, then there’s no reason for the United States to be in a panic mode at all, contrary to the view that Israel, of course, takes on this question.

PERIES: Is there any indication from your investigations that President Obama has access to ElBaradei’s reports and what he’s saying on the consulting with the UN agency [inaudible]?

PORTER: No, I have no reason to believe, I see no indication that Barack Obama has done his own homework on Iran’s nuclear program, that he understands some of the nuances that would be necessary for a president to understand if he’s going to pursue a policy that comports with reality on this situation. That’s why I think that it is really a serious problem that we have here a president who does not have the self-confidence to make policy from his own knowledge. He does not have the time or the energy to devote to this issue. He has to rely on the people surrounding him. And he has done that on other national security issues so far—the secretary of defense, his national security advisor, the secretary of state to some extent, and the advisors who are specifically there to talk about Iran. And that’s why I really am not very optimistic that this president’s going to be able to overcome what seem to be structural impediments, to taking very, you know, strong change-measures with regard to Iran policy, to make moves that are going to break very clearly with past policy, which is what he needs to do in order to really have a bargain with Iran.

PERIES: So it’s clear that if Gareth Porter was advising President Obama, you’d be advising him to take a better grip on the Iran file, and dig a little bit deeper, and try to determine a new approach to dealing with Iran.

PORTER: I would say he needs to go outside the framework of the government structure that surrounds him on Iran policy at this point if he’s going to understand the reality.

PERIES: Thank you for joining us, Gareth. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.