On the same day that Barack Obama went on television in L.A. to chat with Jay Leno about sports, politics, and the economy, he appeared on computer screens in Tehran, thanks to a pre-made video message that – like the president’s NBC appearance – was historical, surreal, messy, inspiring, and momentous. A year before, the talk in Washington was whether to drop bombs on Iran, and here was Obama dropping bon mots. He spoke Persian (“Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak” – “Happy Persian New Year”), referenced one of Iran’s most important poets (Saadi), and went out of his way to vindicate Iran’s cultural contributions to the world.
Never mind that the Ayatollah Khamenei rejected Obama’s overture and said the United States needs to change its policies – not its words – to improve relations with Tehran. And never mind that Obama’s stunning allocution to the Iranian people took a backseat to the president’s tete-a-tete with Leno – at least among many Americans. This was big news – the modern equivalent of John F. Kennedy’s Ich bin ein Berliner speech in Cold War Germany. Unlike Kennedy, Obama didn’t have to go to a foreign capital to speak his peace. He simply sat down in the White House, talked into a camera, then had the film put on his official web site as a video blog with fancy Persian subtitles.
Within minutes of its posting, an Iranian American emailed me to say he was thrilled at Obama’s gesture. He was also proud to have Iran’s historic culture acknowledged by the nation’s 44th president. Nowruz is the spring transition that Persian speakers everywhere celebrate as the start of a New Year. Afghans also herald Nowruz. Obama’s video greeting was noted in Kabul and other Muslim capitals, but his intended audience was Iranians in Iran. Thirty years after Iran’s revolution (and hostage taking) heralded a new era in U.S.-Iran relations, Obama has planted the seeds for a rapprochement. The tough talk is still there (Obama said Tehran’s leaders have “a choice” between “terror” and “peaceful actions”), and Iran’s nuclear ambitions may yet lead to a bloody conflict with Washington. But if a military confrontation is avoided, historians will point to Obama’s Nowruz greeting as, indeed, the beginning of a “new day,” which is the holiday’s literal meaning.