WASHINGTON — When President Trump sent greetings to the Iranian people on Wednesday for the Persian New Year, or Nowruz, it offered a glimpse into an administration that is still debating how to deal with a country that Mr. Trump has painted as an implacable foe.
The five-paragraph statement went through multiple drafts, according to two people involved in the process. Hard-liners in the White House first tried to kill the message, and when that failed, stripped it of references to engaging with the Iranian government or a future in which Iran and the United States might peacefully coexist.
Instead, the statement, issued a day after the holiday began, reached out to the Iranian people while ignoring the government in Tehran. It paid tribute to Iranian immigrants in the United States, even as Mr. Trump’s travel ban prevented relatives of those immigrants from entering the United States.
And it celebrated the ancient history of the Persian Empire while implicitly criticizing the persecution of religious minorities by the mullahs who rule the Islamic republic of today.
“Nowruz means ‘new day’ in Persian,” the president said in the statement. “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.”
Among the sections deleted were one that said 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.”
While those sections passed muster with the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, one person close to the process said, they ran into resistance from Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, who is among those advocating a tougher line against Iran. Mr. Bannon, an administration official said, “gutted the most ridiculous material” after arguing that Mr. Trump should not send the message at all.
The two people spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal White House deliberations.
The Trump administration has already taken a harder line than the Obama administration. In February, General McMaster’s predecessor, Michael T. Flynn, put the Iranians “on notice” after they tested a ballistic missile, saying it undermined “security, prosperity and stability throughout and beyond the Middle East,” and placed “American lives at risk.”
General McMaster is viewed as more pragmatic than Mr. Flynn. He told his staff early on, for example, that he did not view the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” as helpful. But that has not stopped Mr. Trump from using it in his speeches — a habit that shows the influence of Mr. Bannon, who views Iran and China as America’s great adversaries.
Unlike President Barack Obama, who used his first Nowruz message in 2009 to extend an olive branch to Tehran, Mr. Trump demonstrated no interest in engaging with Iran’s leadership. He did not mention Iran, let alone 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.”
Among those messages was one of reassurance to the Iranian diaspora, which has been affected by Mr. Trump’s executive order barring visitors from six predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran. In a few well-publicized cases, it sundered families that had hoped to get together for the holiday.
The statement praised Iranian-Americans as “one of the most successful immigrant groups in our country’s contemporary American history.” It made a point of noting that in addition to Islam, these immigrants come from Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian and Bahai backgrounds — all religions that have faced some type of repression in postrevolution Iran.
Mr. Trump claimed “wonderful friendships with Iranian-Americans.” His director of Jewish outreach during the campaign was an Orthodox Jewish immigrant from Iran, David Peyman.
Critics of the administration said Mr. Trump’s warm sentiments did nothing to 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 the Obama administration, the White House videotaped Nowruz messages from the president and used them as a diplomatic tool. In the first video, Mr. Obama addressed himself to the “people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” That phrase was important because it effectively put to rest the idea that regime change was American policy.
Even more significantly, Mr. Obama offered to engage with the leadership of Iran after decades of estrangement. He followed up the holiday greetings with letters to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In subsequent years, Mr. Obama continued to send Nowruz video greetings, though they were never as bluntly political as the first one.
“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.”
Nowruz greetings typically end with a quotation from a Persian poet. But for Mr. Trump, 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.
“Freedom, dignity and wealth together constitute the greatest happiness of humanity,” Mr. Trump quoted Cyrus as saying. “If you bequeath all three to your people, their love for you will never die.”
Source : NY Times