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Context of 'March 19, 2009: Obama Sends Holiday Message to Iran Calling for Stronger Ties between Iran, US'

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The British newspaper The Independent reports on a secret deal being negotiated in Baghdad that would indefinitely perpetuate the American occupation of Iraq, no matter who wins the US presidential elections in November. Under the accord, US troops and private contractors will occupy over 50 permanent military bases, conduct military operations without consulting the Iraqi government, arrest Iraqis at will, control Iraqi airspace, and be immune from Iraqi law. The agreement goes much farther than a previous draft agreement created between the two countries in March (see March 7, 2008). It is based on a so-called “Declaration of Principles” issued by both governments in November 2007 (see November 26, 2007). The US says it has no intention of entering into a permanent agreement (see June 5, 2008).
Forcing Agreement Over Iraqi Opposition - President Bush intends to force the so-called “strategic alliance” onto the Iraqi government, without modifications, by the end of July. Inside sources believe that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki opposes the deal, but feels that his government cannot stay in power without US backing and therefore has no power to resist. Iraqi ministers have said they will reject any agreement that limits Iraqi sovereignty, insiders believe that their resistance is little more than bluster designed to shore up their credentials as defenders of Iraqi independence; they will sign off on the agreement in the end, observers believe. The only person with the authority to block the deal is Shi’ite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. But al-Sistani is said to believe that the Shi’a cannot afford to lose US support if they intend to remain in control of the government. Al-Sistani’s political rival, cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, has exhorted his followers to demonstrate against the agreement as a compromise of Iraqi sovereignty. As for the other two power blocs in the country, the Kurds are likely to accept the agreement, and, interestingly, so are many Sunni political leaders, who want the US in Iraq to dilute the Shi’ites’ control of the government. (Many Sunni citizens oppose any such deal.) While the Iraqi government itself is trying to delay the signing of the accord, Vice President Dick Cheney has been instrumental in pushing for its early acceptance. The US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, has spent weeks trying to secure the agreement.
'Explosive Political Effect' - Many Iraqis fear that the deal will have what reporter Patrick Cockburn calls “an explosive political effect in Iraq… [it may] destabilize Iraq’s position in the Middle East and lay the basis for unending conflict in their country.” Cockburn writes that the accords may provoke a political crisis in the US as well. Bush wants the accords pushed through “so he can declare a military victory and claim his 2003 invasion has been vindicated.” The accord would also boost the candidacy of John McCain (R-AZ), who claims the US is on the brink of victory in Iraq. It would fly in the face of pledges made by McCain’s presidential opponent Barack Obama (D-IL), who has promised to withdraw US troops from Iraq if elected. McCain has said that Obama will throw away a US victory if he prematurely withdraws troops. An Iraqi politician says of the potential agreement, “It is a terrible breach of our sovereignty.” He adds that such an agreement will delegitimize the Iraqi government and prove to the world that it is nothing more than a puppet government controlled by the US. While US officials have repeatedly denied that the Bush administration wants permanent bases in Iraq, an Iraqi source retorts, “This is just a tactical subterfuge.”
Exacerbating Tensions with Iran - Iranian leader Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani says that the agreement will create “a permanent occupation.… The essence of this agreement is to turn the Iraqis into slaves of the Americans.” The deal may also inflame tensions between Iran and the US; currently the two countries are locked in an under-the-radar struggle to win influence in Iraq. [Independent, 6/5/2008]

Entity Tags: Moqtada al-Sadr, George W. Bush, Bush administration (43), Barack Obama, Hashemi Rafsanjani, John McCain, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Ryan C. Crocker, Sayyid Ali Husaini al-Sistani, Patrick Cockburn, Nouri al-Maliki, Independent

Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation

For the first time in 30 years, an Iranian diplomat meets for informal discussions with officials from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Senior NATO negotiator Martin Erdmann will later confirm that he has met with Iran’s ambassador to the European Union, Ali-Asghar Khaji. “This is another good step in engaging Iran in the international community,” Erdmann will say. NATO will confirm the discussion, and will say the main focus of the talks is the situation in Afghanistan. Iran will confirm its planned participation in US-backed talks on Afghanistan to take place at The Hague. NATO spokesman James Appathurai will say of Iran’s participation in those talks, “The fact that Iran has decided to go is good news and constitutes a new step.” The US State Department will welcome Iran’s contacts with NATO. The Iranian contact follows a recent message sent by President Obama to the government and people of Iran (see March 19, 2009). [BBC, 3/27/2009]

Entity Tags: US Department of State, Ali-Asghar Khaji, James Appathurai, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Martin Erdmann

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran

President Barack Obama releases a video message directed at Iran. The White House sends the message to commemorate the Iranian holiday of Nowruz, or “New Day,” the Iranian New Year. Obama begins by lauding the history and culture of the Iranian people. He acknowledges that the US and Iran continue to have strained and difficult relations, but says, “[A]t this holiday we are reminded of the common humanity that binds us together.” Obama promises that the US will work to build a strong relationship through honest, respectful diplomacy. To Iran’s governmental leaders, he says: “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.” He concludes by quoting a famous Iranian poet and giving holiday greetings in Farsi: “I know that this won’t be reached easily. There are those who insist that we be defined by our differences. But let us remember the words that were written by the poet Saadi, so many years ago: ‘The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence.’ With the coming of a new season, we’re reminded of this precious humanity that we all share. And we can once again call upon this spirit as we seek the promise of a new beginning. Thank you, and Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak [Happy New Year].” [White House, 3/19/2009; White House, 3/19/2009; Washington Post, 3/20/2009]
'Groundbreaking' Message May Force Iranian Hardliners to Give Ground - Reaction to the message is mixed. The New York Times calls the message “groundbreaking,” and notes that Obama’s use of the proper name of the country—“The Islamic Republic of Iran”—acknowledges the nation’s theological governance in a respectful manner not done by members of the Bush administration and, the Washington Post observes, “signaling an apparent break from President George W. Bush’s unstated promotion of a change of leadership.” Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, says of the message: “That wording is designed to demonstrate acceptance of the government of Iran. The message is dripping with sincerity and directly addresses one of the things they are most concerned about.” Iranian officials acknowledge the message, but say that Obama’s actions must live up to his words, and past grievances, such as the US 1988 downing of an Iranian airliner, must be redressed. A senior government official, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, says: “This cannot only be done by us, we cannot simply forget what the US did to our nation. They need to perceive what wrong orientation they had and make serious efforts to make up for it.” A former Iranian ambassador to France, Sadegh Kharrazi, says: “Obama had no practical suggestion that we can work with. This is a lost opportunity.” But Iranian-American expert Karim Sadjadpour says that Obama’s message will force the Iranian government to, in the words of the Times, “put up or shut up on prospects for better relations with the United States.” Sadjadpour says: “What this message does is, it puts the hard-liners in a difficult position, because where the Bush administration united disparate Iranian political leaders against a common threat, what Obama is doing is accentuating the cleavages in Iran. It makes the hard-liners look increasingly like they are the impediment.” [New York Times, 3/20/2009; Washington Post, 3/20/2009]
Neoconservative: Obama 'Kowtowing' to Iranian Government - Neoconservative William Kristol deplores the message, calling it little more than a “message of weakness” and criticizing Obama for not calling on the Iranian government to emphasize “liberty,” “freedom,” “democracy,” and “human rights.” Kristol writes, “[W]hat’s distinctive about Obama’s statement is his respect for the ‘leaders,’ the clerical dictatorship,” to whom Obama is “kowtowing.” Kristol deplores Obama’s failure to echo the Bush administration’s call for regime change in Iran, and criticizes Obama’s failure to call for an end to Iran’s nuclear program. “Obama doesn’t believe in threats,” Kristol writes. “He believes that we should speak nicely to our enemies, and carry no stick.” [Weekly Standard, 3/30/2009]

Entity Tags: New York Times, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, Barack Obama, Martin Indyk, William Kristol, Karim Sadjadpour, Washington Post, Sadegh Kharrazi, Obama administration

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran

US presidential envoy Richard Holbrooke meets briefly and informally with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed Mehdi Akhondzadeh. Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special representatative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Akhondzadeh are participants in a major international conference at The Hague convened to discuss the problem of Afghanistan. The two talk briefly during a lunch break. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will say of the meeting: “It was cordial, unplanned, and they agreed to stay in touch. I myself did not have any direct contact with the Iranian delegation.” Clinton says the US has asked the Iranian delegation to intercede in the cases of two American citizens being detained in Iran and a third who is missing. The New York Times calls the two contacts “another step in the Obama administration’s policy of engagement… a tentative process, in which the White House makes symbolic gestures, like President Obama’s recent video greeting to the Iranian people and government for their New Year (see March 19, 2009), while continuing to formulate its longer-term strategy.” Some experts believe that the meeting between Holbrooke and Akhondzadeh is not entirely fortuitous, but is the product of some planning. In the conference, Akhondzadeh says Iran will help reconstruction in Afghanistan as well as take part in efforts to curb the exploding Afghan drug trade. “The fact that they came today, that they intervened today, is a promising sign that there will be future cooperation,” Clinton says. “The Iranian representative set forth some very clear ideas that we will all be pursuing together.” The US and Iran have mutual interests in curbing Afghanistan’s drug trade, Clinton says: “The questions of border security, and in particular the transit of narcotics across the border from Afghanistan to Iran is a worry that the Iranians have, which we share.” [New York Times, 3/31/2009]

Entity Tags: Mohammed Mehdi Akhondzadeh, Hillary Clinton, Obama administration, Richard Holbrooke

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran

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