Obama’s slightly patronizing greeting to Iranians by mattsteinglass
March 20, 2009, 2:21 pm
Filed under: Foreign Policy, Iran

Obama’s video message to the Iranian people and their leaders is a strong step forward, but — to quibble — I wondered about the sightly patronizing tone he adopts in places. For example:

Over many centuries your art, your music, literature and innovation have made the world a better and more beautiful place.

This is the kind of thing one might expect to hear on a National Geographic program about Iranian culture for Americans. Just try flipping the script for a second, and imagine President Ahmadinejad saying to Americans: “Over many years your movies, your music, your businesses and your consumer technology have made the world a better and more entertaining place.” You’d think, well, it’s nice that he’s trying, but he doesn’t really know anything about us and it sounds like he’s about to compliment us on our delicious Big Macs. He’s complimenting us, but based on shallow cultural-appreciation stereotypes. The problem is worse going in the Iranian direction because of the echoes of orientalism: we are the cosmopolitan, powerful future, and they have such a wonderful indigenous culture. Not that he’s actually complimenting them on their beautiful carpets, but the “your art” thing just seems…well-intentioned but patronizing:

Here in the United States our own communities have been enhanced by the contributions of Iranian Americans.  We know that you are a great civilization, and your accomplishments have earned the respect of the United States and the world.

For nearly three decades relations between our nations have been strained.  But at this holiday we are reminded of the common humanity that binds us together.  Indeed, you will be celebrating your New Year in much the same way that we Americans mark our holidays — by gathering with friends and family, exchanging gifts and stories, and looking to the future with a renewed sense of hope.

This sounds to me like it’s geared more towards an American ear than towards an Iranian one. Iranians don’t need to be told that they celebrate the holidays by gathering with their families, like people anywhere on the planet. It’s Americans who need to be told that, in order to de-otherize the image of Iran. It might be worthwhile to tell Iranians that Americans celebrate our holidays pretty much the way they do, by gathering with family etc. But to speak to them about how they celebrate their holidays seems to me to confuse the tone of address slightly. Imagine, say, Khrushchev telling the American people in 1957: “Tomorrow you will celebrate your national kholiday of ‘Thenks-gee-veeng’, and you will gether with your femillies much as the people of the Soviet Union do when we celebrate the founding of our country.” You’d think: well, nice gesture, but…not exactly. Our holidays actually mean something pretty different from yours.

This section, in contrast, seems exactly right:

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.

Fair, simple, and straight-up. You have your interests, we have ours, we would like to talk. But then we go back to the  slightly off-key stuff:

You, too, have a choice.  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 through 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.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that this isn’t the kind of thing one can effectively say to the citizens of a different state. Obama could say this to Americans: “the measure of our greatness is not the capacity to destroy.” As an American leader, it’s part of his job to offer the country definitions of its values and goals. But I’m not sure he can do that for Iranians; that sounds to me like overreach. And it sounds like the kind of hegemonic attitude which as Fareed Zakaria so incisively pointed out this week has infected the entire Washington elite, not just the GOP.

I could be completely wrong; maybe Iranians loved the speech. In any case hopefully they’ll give Obama the benefit of the doubt, and it’s got to be better than eight years of “axis of evil” nonsense.


8 Comments so far
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“This is huge,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a group that supports U.S. engagement with Tehran. “First of all, he is addressing the people and the government, which has not been done before. At one point he talks about the Islamic Republic. He’s signaling he’s not looking for regime change; he’s recognizing Iran’s system.

“You always heard Rice and Bush say ‘Iranian regime,'” Parsi noted. “It’s a big difference.” That doesn’t mean Obama doesn’t support Iranian democratization, Parsi said. “But he recognizes the government that exists in Iran right now.”

Parsi also found remarkable Obama’s comments that he recognized Iran has a “rightful role among nations.”

“When he is saying the U.S. seeks constructive ties between the U.S., Iran, and international community,” Parsi added, “that is signaling strategic intent. He is making it clear is that where he wants to end up through diplomacy which he supports is a constructive, positive relationship with Iran, to put aside our enmity. That is huge.”

Comment by KMF

KMF – That’s great! I’d be happy to be proved completely wrong.

Comment by mattsteinglass

I’m currently reading Hooman Majd’s excellent book, “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran.”

Majd spends a lot of time discussing the uniquely Persian concept of T’aarof, a remarkably complex, and powerful social form, based on (and I’m hardly an expert) over-the-top complements, self-abasement, and implication. It’s the old “no, after you” bit, taken to the nth degree.

According to Majd, T’aarof underlies all Iranian relationships and negotiations. To my untrained ear, Obama’s flattery was perfectly calibrated to the Persian audience. I could be wrong.

Comment by D.B. Cooper

I should add that I think the fourth passage quoted above was much less effective.

Comment by D.B. Cooper

Wow, some people just can’t be pleased, can they?
I can’t believe that you are complaining about the American President trying to engage other countries on their own ground. How about the fact that Obama even knew that it is Nowruz today? That’s more than a president has even bothered to find out for the last 30 years. I actually would be quite happy if Ahmadinajad and Kruschev said some of those “silly” things that you wrote above. it would show that they at least were trying to figure out where we were coming from.
The Iranians are rightfully very proud of their literature, their culture, and their art and the enormous effect that it has had on the culture of the region. I think by complimenting them on their past, he makes an effective bridge to working on the future.

Comment by lebecka

As an actual Iranian (of Canadian nationality), I thought Obama’s message was spot on. Here’s how to imagine the typical Iranian: he/she knows that the country is run by fanatics and crooks, and knows that it wasn’t always this way. He/she sees people from neighboring countries going to American universities and being welcomed with open arms, and feels resentful. He/she turns on the TV (satellite) and sees people in the US, Europe, even in previously “inferior” nations like Turkey and the UAE and India living freely and prosperously, and sees his/her own restricted society and is jealous. Basically, Iranians have developed an inferiority complex over the years, and will devour any kind of compliment, especially those about how great Iranian history and culture are. They won’t find Obama patronizing, they’ll just be glad that he’s not calling them out on the truth, that their country has been run into the gutter.

Comment by Persian

What I find patronizing is this post, Mr. Steinglass. And not slightly, but extremely.

I’m American. If foreign leaders said to me what you posted here, I’d feel respected. Like the foreign leader “gets it.”

Obama speaks to people like adults. All people. Not just Americans. He is a citizen of the world after all.

Comment by Craig Hickman

The silliness of thinking that a video lecturing Iran’s leaders will have any effect. The leaders already have blown him off in response. Iranian’s leaders will act in their perceived self interest, nothing more, nothing less. Words from Obama will have no effect on them.

By the way, to all you folks who equate George Bush with ignorance and evil, he delivered an address to the Iranian people last year on new year’s day and also did an interview with the Voice of America (something that is better Obama not do since it could not be on a teleprompter).

There is nothing wrong with trying to communicate with the Iranian people and, while quite patronizing, Obama was smart to do that part of the message (just like Bush).

Comment by KC Oracle

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