A few years ago, at the UN General Assembly, I had a brief chat with the then president of Iran, Ahmadinejad. He had just finished his speech, which was a drama in itself--not just because of what he said but also because of the reaction of the audience. Predictably, the American delegation walked out in protest, along with the Israelis. In our conversation he invited me to come to Iran and see for myself the progress the country was making. To date I have not been able to take him up on that offer, although I hope to one day. What really is going on in Iran, particularly as it pertains to its nuclear ambitions is anyone's guess. One thing is certain, dealing with Iran is a sensitive and critical leadership challenge given that it is a powerful and proud nation of nearly 80 million people with an ancient civilization.
In recent days we have witnessed two competing strategies for dealing with Iran. The first strategy was by forty-seven members of the US congress who undermined the US president by sending a letter to Iran's president telling him not to take seriously anything Obama says or does as it pertains to a nuclear agreement. This action, led by 37 year old freshman senator Tom Cotton, was wrong, and an embarrassment. Sadly, no leadership there.
The second strategy was a little more interesting, and that was Obama's video message directly to the Iranian people. Taking advantage of the fact that it was the Iranian new year, Obama sent a carefully crafted message aimed primarily at the young people of Iran, and those whose minds were not trapped ideologically, politically, or culturally. The essence of the message was that there would be great benefits for Iran if a nuclear agreement could be reached that ensured the development of Iran's nuclear industry would be exclusively for peaceful purposes. The benefits would include cultural exchanges, an increase in trade, and partnerships for education, science, and technology. It was a powerful message, complete with some verse by the 14th century Persian poet Hafez, who is known for lauding the joys of love and wine and speaking against religious and political hypocrisy.
Obama's strategy was wise. Sensing that some of the Iranian boundary keepers were blocking progress, he is attempting to start an informal movement amongst young people to pressure their authority figures to do the right thing and make an agreement. Given how Tom Cotton and his crew have irresponsibly muddied the water, let's see if it helps.