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Crafting a Cultural Idiom of Engagement: The US President’s Persian Poetry (Part 1)

By Kevin Schwartz and Aria Fani

The events culminating in the interim agreement between Iran and the members of the P5+1 group in Lausanne, Switzerland over Iran’s nuclear program are sure to attract historians wishing to understand how two countries with minimal diplomatic ties (severed more than three decades ago) were able to reach a political agreement and perhaps begin a chapter of more normalized relations. In particular, analyses are likely to focus on the role of sanctions, meant to isolate the Iranian economy internationally and demonstrate the high cost of nuclear intransigence, in reaching a deal. Largely unnoticed has been the Obama administration’s diligent crafting of a cultural idiom to engage Iran through a multitude of methods, such as the reciting of Persian poetry.

It’s true that the use of sanctions should be regarded as the administration’s primary political tool in achieving a nuclear deal. While the international campaign to isolate Iran was inherited from previous administrations, the decision to continue enforcing sanctions as a tool to reach a nuclear agreement was decidedly the administration’s own: even as negotiations progressed, sanctions continued uninterrupted, new ones were introduced, and other countries and non-US banks were encouraged to abide by them. But while the president inherited a sanctions architecture that could be more explicitly redirected toward the pursuit of a nuclear agreement, the situation was decidedly more complex when it came to political rhetoric. Years of mutual enmity and distrust defined the rhetoric of American-Iranian exchange. If sanctions could merely be ratcheted up and more deliberately repackaged as a deterrent to Iran’s nuclear program, then the cultural and political discourse accompanying such an aim and meant to demonstrate this administration’s differences from its predecessors would need to be repackaged, too. The problems it inherited didn’t afford the Obama administration the luxury of business as usual; the political rhetoric directed toward Iran would need to be significantly decoupled from that of previous administrations.

Upon taking office in 2009, president Barack Obama inherited a cavalcade of confrontational political messaging that sought to define Iran as one of the preeminent threats facing the United States and its allies. President George W. Bush’s designation of Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil,” still very much an integral part of Washington’s lexicon when Mr. Obama took office, was only the latest in a years-long run of such sloganeering.  The crafting of a new cultural idiom would prove to be a key element of Mr. Obama’s own vision of diplomacy. Required was the desire to remain committed to the implementation of sanctions and pursuit of negotiations, while at the same time articulating a linguistic register that could afford a greater display of recognition of Iran as a cultural entity. This evolution to engaging Iran through a refined cultural idiom designed to operate in conjunction with political policy is best seen in the president’s recitation of Persian poetry in annual messages addressed to the government and the people of Iran.

Every year since taking office, president Obama has taken the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian New Year marking the first day of spring, to offer his well wishes to everyone celebrating the holiday around the world and speak directly to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. While economic sanctions and their impact will continue to be subjects of analysis, president Obama’s overtures of cultural diplomacy through Persian verse warrant careful consideration for challenging a discourse that has heretofore solely engaged Iran as a political territory.

The inclusion of Persian poetry in the president’s messages recognizes Iran as a cultural territory transcending its political borders. It situates Iran in a decentered and broader scene, with its own distinct historical legacy cultivated by many ethnic, linguistic, and religious participants. Using poetry as a robust form of intercultural dialogue, the president finds himself in a long genealogy of Persianate diplomats, litterateurs, and state secretaries who have mediated the most pressing political conflicts of their time through the Persian literary idiom. Such an approach recognizes the cultural affiliations and affinities of Iranians, but the region at large. If we have learned anything in the post-9/11 world, it is that the rhetoric of warmongering forbids ambiguity and discards nuance. Mr. Obama’s cultural rhetoric is a first step in a long process of recovering a lexicon that can register difference beyond the political designations of “us” versus “them.”

In his messages to Iran, Mr. Obama draws on the opportunity of Nowruz to speak of the “promise of a new beginning” (2009), “to reflect on the year gone by” (2010), and to celebrate “the hope that comes with renewal” (2012). The approximately four minute-long messages often refer to disagreements over Iran’s nuclear program and the latest developments in US-Iran relations, but also focus on the plight of the Iranian people.

For example, in 2010 and 2011, following the protests over the contested 2009 presidential elections in Iran and in the midst of the Arab Spring, Mr. Obama spoke of “a campaign of intimidation and abuse” against the Iranian population by their government. In 2012, the mention of Iran’s nuclear program was altogether absent; instead, the primary focus was on the Iranian government’s monitoring of its population’s communications, the Iranian people’s inability to access information freely, and the “electronic curtain” considered by the West to have fallen over the country.

Even as the details of the messages change, a consistent curiosity remains: the inclusion of a line of poetry from a famous Persian poet, past or present. The president’s quoting of such poets help frame the content and mood of his messages and reflect the development of his attitudes toward Iran during his years in office. 

In his first message in 2009, Mr. Obama quoted a line from thirteenth-century poet Sa‘di: “The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence.” The line is one of the most famous in all of Persian poetry. It’s familiar to children across the Persianate world who at an early age read Sa‘di’s Rose Garden as a primer in the Persian language and as an introduction to the humanism and wisdom embedded in his stories. It was an appropriate choice for an newly elected president seeking to shift the tenor of US-Iran relations by appealing to the most general commonality: the fact that we are all humans. It was certainly a safe choice, even if it wasn’t the first time a US president had uttered the words of the thirteenth century poet: president Jimmy Carter quoted the same lines to the Shah at a New Year’s Eve celebration in Tehran in December 1977, when Iran was on the brink of revolution. That the choice to quote the humanistic aphorism by Sa‘di in the presence of his friend the Shah was an admonishment over Iran’s human rights record, as some have claimed, rather than an exhibition of hypocrisy and deafness to the complicity of American support of the Shah’s regime, as likely seen by many Iranians at the time, remains a possibility. But if Mr. Carter’s words were a noble attempt at solemnity during a time of celebration, then they were certainly subsumed by the opulent and exclusive nature of the fete, closed to ordinary Iranians and indicative of indulgences for which the Shah was known. Mr. Obama’s quoting of Sa‘di’s famous bayt surely did not account for the manner it had been evoked previously in the context of US-Iran relations, yet it nonetheless captured the message’s uncertainty of whether hope would be requited after years of mutual enmity.

In 2011, in a message that focused primarily on the persecution, arrests, and struggles of the Iranian people, Mr. Obama drew from the poetry of Simin Behbahani, who died in 2014: “Old I may be, but given the chance, I will learn. I will begin a second youth alongside my progeny. I will recite the Hadith of love of country with such fervor as to make each word bear life.”

Selected from “My Country, I will Build You Again,” these lines surely would have resonated strongly with certain segments of the Iranian population. Like Sa‘di’s lines, the poem comes with its own historical baggage. It was composed in 1982 at the height of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), during which the US overlooked, if it did not support, Saddam Hussein’s aggressions against Iranians, and in particular his use of chemical weapons. The poem, as with all enduring works of literature, has transcended its original context and captures the universal love of homeland. The latter is the context Mr. Obama’s reading hoped to evoke. A year before the president quoted her, Behbahani, in her eighties, was not allowed by the authorities to leave the country to attend an International Women’s Day event in Paris.  Having lived in Iran as an educator and poet for more than five decades,  Behbahani was a major figure of the Iranian literary landscape whose work enjoyed readership not only in Iran but also in the wider Persianate world. Her lines reflected the core of the president’s message of hope that year and, most importantly, his reminder to Iran’s youth that their struggle would not be in vain. As Mr. Obama noted elsewhere in his message, “the future of Iran belongs to young people—the youth who will determine their own destiny.” Behbahani’s lines captured the contradictions harbored in the defiance of an octogenarian poet and a US president, equally upset with the present and with little power to create change without the participation of young people. 


This is the first part of a two-part series exploring president Barack Obama's use of Persian poetry as a diplomatic tool. Click here to read part two.

Published Apr 23, 2015   Copyright 2015 Kevin Schwartz and Aria Fani

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