- Published: Friday, 24 March 2017
On Wednesday, while the Iranian people were celebrating the Persian New Year, or Nowruz, United States President Trump sent his greetings.
Behind the scenes, his statement, which totaled five paragraphs, went through multiple drafts, according to people involved in the process.
White House hardliners tried to kill the message. Failing that, they took out references of engaging with the Iranian government or a future in which Iran and the United States might coexist in peace.
The final statement was issued a day after the holiday began. In it, Mr. Trump reached out to the Iranian people, but ignored the government in Tehran.
It applauded Iranian immigrants in the United States, while his travel ban prevents relatives of these immigrants from entering the United States.
It celebrated the Persian Empire’s ancient history, and criticized the persecution of religious minorities in the Islamic republic today.
Mr. Trump said, “Nowruz means ‘new day’ in Persian. It is an occasion to celebrate new beginnings, a sentiment that is particularly meaningful for so many Iranians who have come to our country in recent decades to make a new start in a free land.”
Two people who spoke anonymously, as they are not authorized to discuss internal White House deliberations, said that deleted sections of the speech included one saying that America looked forward to engaging someday with a “representative Iranian government” on the basis of mutual respect, and another that cited Henry A. Kissinger’s oft-repeated line that Iran needed to decide whether it is a “nation or a cause.” They said the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, approved of this material. However, one person close to the process said that the president’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, who is among those advocating a tough stance against Iran, “gutted the most ridiculous material” and argued that the message shouldn’t be sent at all.
The Trump administration has already taken a hard line in February, when General McMaster’s predecessor, Michael T. Flynn, put the Iranians “on notice” after they tested a ballistic missile. Flynn said that it undermined “security, prosperity and stability throughout and beyond the Middle East,” and placed “American lives at risk.”
Viewed as more pragmatic than Mr. Flynn, General McMaster told his staff early on that he did not view the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” as helpful. Still, Mr. Trump uses the phrase in his speeches, which shows the influence of Mr. Bannon.
President Barack Obama used his first Nowruz message in 2009 to extend an olive branch to Tehran. Mr. Trump, instead, showed no interest in becoming involved with Iran’s leadership. He made no mention Iran, nor did he use its formal name, the Islamic Republic of Iran, as Mr. Obama did.
“This is a message designed to put the regime on the defensive,” said Dennis B. Ross, a former senior adviser to Mr. Obama on Iran. “It is smart and well crafted with clear messages in mind.”
The message included reassurance to the Iranian diaspora, which has been affected by Mr. Trump’s travel ban which bars visitors from six predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran, by praising Iranian-Americans as “one of the most successful immigrant groups in our country’s contemporary American history.” Mr. Trump claimed “wonderful friendships with Iranian-Americans.”
He noted that in addition to Islam, these immigrants come from Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, and Bahai backgrounds. These religions have each faced forms of repression in post-revolution Iran.
Critics of the administration said that the sentiments Mr. Trump voiced, did not ease the pain of families split by his travel ban. “Empty words disgrace the one who speaks them, like serving a walnut shell without the nut,” said the National Iranian American Council, quoting a 13th-century Persian poet, Saadi.
During Mr. Obama’s administration, the White House videotaped his Nowruz messages and used them as a diplomatic tool. Mr. Obama addressed himself to the “people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” in his first video. The phrase was important because it put to rest the idea that regime change was American policy.
Mr. Obama also offered to engage with Iran’s leadership, after decades of estrangement. He followed up with letters to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well.
“The Nowruz messages have historically been occasions when the White House limits itself to good year wishes,” said Ray Takeyh, an expert on Iran at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It was during the Obama administration that they were infused with political content, as the White House was searching for ways to reach out to the Iranian government. So in many ways, the Trump administration’s message is restoring a pre-existing tradition.”
Typically, Nowruz greetings finish with a quotation from a Persian poet. The White House found a saying attributed to a leader of the ancient Persian Empire, Cyrus the Great, who appeared to share the president’s respect for material success. Mr. Trump quoted Cyrus as saying, “Freedom, dignity, and wealth together constitute the greatest happiness of humanity. If you bequeath all three to your people, their love for you will never die.”