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Obama channels Bush on Iran

This is a guest post by Gabriel Max Scheinmann, a PhD student at Georgetown University and Visiting Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.


Hallmark it ain't. Yesterday President Obama gave his annual YouTube message marking Nowruz, the Persian new year. In a tradition begun by President Bush and used as an opportunity to directly address Iran, Obama's four Nowruz greetings have symbolized the evolutions in the Administration's policy, from a realpolitik message of respect and engagement with Iranian leaders to likening the regime to the Soviet Union and identification with the aspirations of freedom of the Iranian people. As Iranian behavior has become even more belligerent, Obama's approach towards Tehran has increasingly resembled that of the Bush Administration that he so derided.

In his inaugural Nowruz message in 2009, Obama endeavored to "speak clearly to Iran's leaders," praising the "shared hopes" and "common humanity that binds us together." He called for a "new beginning" in diplomatic relations, scrubbing any mention of the Iranian nuclear program or the regime's oppression of its own citizens. He announced his administration's commitment to diplomacy and foreswore the "sticks" approach of his predecessor, affirming that the "Islamic Republic of Iran" could yet "take its rightful place in the community of nations."

A year later, Obama somewhat shifted his message. The president again validated the legitimacy of the regime, by calling on the "leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran", and again offered to engage on "the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect." He even supported Iran's leaders' "right to peaceful nuclear energy." Following the regime's repression of domestic protests after the fraudulent June 2009 presidential election, the president for the first time referenced the distressing state of civil liberties within Iran. However Obama ended his message much in the same way he had a year earlier, repeating that "our offer of comprehensive diplomatic contacts and dialogue stands."

Obama's 2011 message marked a dramatic transformation in tone and substance. It's the first time he spoke directly to the Iranian people, dropping the niceties of the "Islamic Republic of Iran." Perhaps slightly intoxicated with blooming Arab revolts, the president directly linked the uprisings in Tahrir Square to those in Tehran's Azadi Square in June 2009, a couched call for Iranians to peacefully rise up and depose their own leaders. Asserting that the Iranian regime feared its own people, he concluded with a phrase that many Americans would associate with a certain Texan: "And though times may seem dark, I want you to know that I am with you."

Just yesterday, the president underwent his starkest transformation yet. Addressing solely the Iranian people and echoing Winston Churchill, he compared Iran to the Soviet Union by declaring that "because of the actions of the Iranian regime, an electronic curtain has fallen around Iran." Obama called for a dialogue between peoples, not governments, and, for the first time, mentioned U.S. sanctions against Iranian leaders. Once again, he highlighted the Iranian people, not the regime, as "the heirs to a great and ancient civilization" and declared that the regime's responsibility to respect the rights of its people was as important as its commitments to the international community regarding its nuclear program. Although the president still offered the Iranian government a way out, Obama elevated the importance of the freedom of the Iranian people to that of the Iranian nuclear program and explicitly compared the Iranian regime to the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union.

In three short years, Obama's Nowruz greetings, much like his Iran policy, have progressed back to those of the Bush Administration. By pledging himself to the Iranian people in their struggle against a Soviet-like regime, he borrowed President Bush's final Nowruz message: "the reformers inside Iran are brave people, they've got no better friend than George W. Bush, and I ask for God's blessings on them on their very important work."

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Romney struggles to court Swedish vote

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney may be riding high after his convincing win in the Illinois primary, but he's still getting the cold shoulder from one demographic group: Swedes.

On Tuesday, Sweden's The Local highlighted a new survey by the Swedish arm of the online polling firm YouGov, which found that 74 percent of Swedes would vote for President Obama over either Romney or Rick Santorum. Eighty percent of Danish respondents and 73 percent of Norwegian respondents said they'd choose Obama over Romney, while British respondents endorsed Obama at a less enthusiastic 58 percent. (A separate study by a YouGov affiliate found that 60 percent of British "influentials" believe Obama is better than his Republican challengers for British interests.)  

Swedes aren't just more receptive to Obama -- they're actively concerned about what a Republican return to the White House could mean for the world. Fifty-two percent said an Obama loss could negatively affect global security, compared with 49 percent in Denmark, 47 percent in Norway, and 33 percent in the United Kingdom. Roughly a third of respondents in each country are worried that a GOP victory could negatively affect Europe's economy and foreign policy.

YouGov also found that Norwegians, Danes, and Swedes are intensely following news about the U.S. presidential election -- so much so that, according to one estimate by a media monitoring service, 498 articles about the American contest have appeared in the Swedish press this year, compared with a mere 107 on the already completed elections in neighboring Finland.

That generally liberal Northern Europe is enamored with Obama may not be all that surprising. And Romney hasn't exactly endeared himself to the region by accusing the president of wanting to turn America into a "European-style entitlement society." 

But while Swedes may not have a vote in the election, overseas perceptions of U.S. presidential contests can matter. Obama's campaign speech before an adoring crowd in Berlin was a major storyline during the 2008 race. In a Foreign Policy article last week, Oliver Kamm argued that David Cameron's recent visit to Washington suggests that the British prime minister is already betting on Obama winning reelection. Today on the site, Tom Ricks wonders whether Saudi efforts to stabilize the oil market amount to a "vote" for Obama.

The YouGov survey isn't the only polling indicating that Obama is wildy popular in Northern and Western Europe -- significantly more popular, in fact, than he is at home. But how about elsewhere in the world? Pew's 2010 Global Attitudes Project report offers the most comprehensive data here. Majorities or pluralities in 16 of the 22 countries surveyed expressed at least some confidence in Obama to "do the right thing regarding world affairs," but only in Kenya and Nigeria -- the two African countries surveyed -- did Obama enjoy Western Europe-level adoration. U.S. allies such as Japan (76 percent), South Korea (75 percent), and India (73 percent) also expressed high levels of support.

But powerful U.S. frenemies such as China (52 percent) and Russia (41 percent) gave Obama an icier response, as did predominantly Muslim countries such as Egypt (33 percent), Jordan (26 percent), and Turkey (23 percent) -- a reality that Obama's handling of the Arab Spring did not alter.

Obama's poorest showing in 2010? Pakistan, where only 8 percent of respondents expressed at least some confidence in him. The good news for the president? We imagine Mitt Romney wouldn't fare any better.

Marc Femenia/AFP/Getty Images