Obama's Nawroz message to Iran marked a serious shift in American policy and attitude towards Iran but also showed the structural weaknesses in the American state that could prevent it from achieving those goals. Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, gave an excellent and well-thought-out reply to that speech the following day, which has been analysed by Juan Cole and Farideh Farhi. When discussing countries like Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan, commentators often mention the existence of a 'deep state', a coterie of officials somewhere within the state apparatus who have ultimate control over policy. I don't think this is much the case with Iran, and I'll explain below, but it definitely is a factor with the US, and in a lot of ways it gets to the heart of constraints on nation-states' abilities to act and react.
Although representing an unmistakable improvement in attitude, the American overture revealed serious errors and a general lack of understanding on the part of the US government. The speech started out with a nice amount of ego-stroking and going on about the greatness of the Persian people and nation. Now this represents a good surface-level understanding understanding of Iranian culture, when people greet each other they go on with endless platitudes and compliments, but at some point they get down to business. This tendency to spend lots of time complimenting people, indeed often dialectically and with an almost competitive attention to detail, is known as ta'âruf. Notice the point about 'competitive attention to detail' and then 'getting down to business'; that's what's called zaringî or "cleverness". In how you compliment somebody and what you compliment them on, you are setting the framework for what you want to discuss (or even the relationship more generally), hopefully in your favour. When Americans become familiar with the concepts of ta'âruf and zaringî, they understand them both individually but fail to realise how Iranian culture puts them together so magnificently into the political WMD known as pârtîbâzî. And this extends to every level of human interaction--if it seems overly political, well it is, and it exhausts many Iranians themselves as well as many foreigners (of course, being a fan of the supremacy of politics in life, I love it, and I think it gives Iranians a real leg-up in the modern world). A compliment, when followed up by a specifically glaring lack of action also has the effect of being a huge insult...one of those insults that knocks people flat on their asses and gets talked about for a long time because it was such a great diss.
The point is, after all of this lovely ta'âruf the US president needed to get down to business by way of introducing one or two solid chunks of new policy. Rather, what he did was say this:
"You, too, have a choice. The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nation. 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 civilisation. And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated capacity to build and create."
Burn. Along with not introducing any new policies on the part of the US, Obama instead offered sharp criticism by implying that Iran is not being responsible and that the main thrust of its diplomacy is bolstered by terror and arms. Iran is far from being my favourite state actor, but this sort of talk is useless and largely out of line. The most negative interpretation is that the US simply doesn't get it while a more positive one would be that Obama and his team get it but the broader political establishment both made them throw this in as a disclaimer and required the speech to be cautious so as to elicit a response from the Iranian government before introducing concrete policy initiatives. The truth is probably somewhere in between.
Many Americans would like to believe that the US's primary USP is its ideological commitments, but the reality is different. It doesn't particularly fail in that regard, but first and foremost its commitment is to its citizens, nor is it a particularly responsible member of the international community. Even if Obama really is different than the neglect or disparagement of liberal ideals which we have seen from the US recently, the US has no right to go around chastising others for support of militant movements. Support for groups like Hizbullah as bargaining chips is minor compared to the level of US support for Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. Additionally the comments reveal that Iran's desire to build a bomb is taken to be undeniable. I would argue that there is no consensus about this in the Iranian leadership other than the notion that the door should be left open. The chances of the leadership committing to weaponisation are indeed small in any circumstance short of an attack on Iran, the political and clerical opposition would likely topple the government were that openly mooted. Rather, Iran, like the US, is a status-quo power with the occasional ideological flourish. The inflammatory statements which come from Iran are usually the populist rants of President Ahmadinejad and aren't taken seriously by many Iran-watchers--when Khamenei gets on stage things are much more subdued. Again this is no more inflammatory that the Bush managed to say even when he wasn't mangling his words. The reality is, that while Iran has been a force for stability, real security nightmares have come to pass, like Israel's and Pakistan's acquisition of nuclear weapons. True, Iran's internal human rights record could use some work (especially with regards to treatment of Bahais), but it's still the liveliest and most participatory governments around its region.
So it's clear that the US view of Iran is disproportionately bad in comparison to other regional actors. This probably boils down to a matter of pride, as well as the shock of all the anti-Americanism expressed during the revolution (as used to it as we are now, it was a genuine shock then). What worries me is that deep down the American security services and intelligence agencies just don't get it. One of the main qualifications for getting the necessary clearance to work at those levels is loyalty to the US, and by and large this is not the pluralistic US of Nawroz and Chinese new year but of apple pie and narrow worldviews. Anyone with genuine empathy towards non-Americans (I once heard a CIA official call it "affinity for foreign regions"!) isn't going to make it far in this system and their viewpoint will have been largely shaped by the received wisdom or lack thereof. This isn't a particular criticism of the US, it's a problem with the nation state in general; in this case the Iranian security services have similar issues. It means that some Americans think they're being real clever and understanding by buttering up Iran but haven't had enough exposure to the culture to realise that they came off as demeaning by not following up a grand gesture with grand substance. Such people might not also realise that they US really needs to change the way it acts, even if those are the actions that Iran has been criticising for so long for entirely the wrong reasons. And this is what I mean when I talk about the "deep state". There is a certain class of people who must be disabused of entirely false notions for the US to take the steps necessary to produce dialogue with Iran.
Iran too has deeply intrenched and unaccountable actors that make policy decisions they should not. However, where Iran sometimes lacks full democracy, nobody can accuse one faction of having a monopoly. All of the various security services, government foundations (which control 85% of the economy), and many different elements of the military and revolutionary guards answer to their own patrons and interests, but this hardly equals a coherent policy like one sees in the US or Turkey. Rather, it can best be seen as a gross lack of accountability and state-wide sclerosis that makes any sort of major political movement difficult. When Iranian-made weapons turn up in bazaars in Afghanistan they are not the result of state policy, they could be the decision of one commander somewhere to make a little bit of illicit financial gain or of a factory owner, or both parties thought they were selling to someone legitimate who was really a front for someone less so. So yes, there are all sorts of actors with all sorts of interests buried deep within the Iranian government, but they don't represent a deep state that is really in control of Iran.
What the US needs with Iran is leverage, and that leverage cannot be built by scolding Iran. Serious dialogue needs to be based on interest. As much as it pains me personally, if the US (and Iran) can ignore talking about ideology, they will be able to do a lot together merely because it is in each other's best interests. The US is not in a position to scold Iran and needs to refrain from doing so, and as such needs to approach talks with unconditionality. I would advise Iran of the same thing. Luckily both sides want dialogue and we'll gauge how much that's the case by willingness to overlook gaffes. Khamenei's response was rightly welcomed by Obama's press secretary. Let's just hope that the US doesn't wait for change from Iran before it does the right thing itself.