Persian new year is a poetic moment for Biden to influence Iranians
Nowruz, the Persian New Year which takes place this Saturday, is a time for new beginnings. For President Biden it will mark the first occasion to offer a message directly to the Iranian people and perhaps hint at how his administration may approach the issue of Iran. Details on looming policy issues are likely to be scant, but the tone of U.S.-Iran relations for the next four years may well be set with the answer to a simple question: Can Biden speak Persian poetry?
Poetry possesses a unique rhetorical power to capture the collision between politics and culture as Amanda Gorman reminded us on inauguration day. It can enliven and enlighten, disturb our ignorance and hearten our spirits, reveal historical wounds and press us toward alternative futures. In Iran offering up the appropriate Persian verse on the right occasion has for centuries helped determine how cultural and political capital is gained, exchanged and lost, harboring the ability to define legends, establish legacies and topple kings.
Presidential messages on Nowruz need not feature Persian poetry, nor really mention anything about Iranian politics at all. President Bush simply used the occasion to highlight how the holiday brings together families and friends and how those celebrating Nowruz in the United States reflect the country’s diversity of cultures and plurality of traditions.
But President Obama developed a habit in his Nowruz addresses of tackling issues vexing the Iranian people and menacing U.S.-Iran affairs, all the while sprinkling — with great effect — a line or two of Persian poetry to encapsulate the general tenor of his message and reveal his own thinking on the state of U.S.-Iran relations.
During his first address in 2009, Obama recounted the well-known adage by the 13th-century poet Saʿdi how “The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence” to signify a fresh start in U.S.-Iran relations following the heightened tension of the Bush years. In 2011, with the wounds of the contested 2009 elections still running deep, he cited the words of Simin Behbehani — “Old, I may be, but, given the chance, I will learn. I will begin a second youth alongside my progeny” — to uplift the Iranian youth in the face of hardship, urging them that their struggles would not be in vain for someday they would lead the nation. In his final address, he rejoiced in the possibility of a brightened future and a more globally connected Iran, beseeching his listeners in the words of Fereydun Moshiri to, “Open the windows. For the kind breeze is celebrating the birthday of the flowers.”
Of the ways President Trump shunned the legacy of his predecessor, add quoting poetry to the list. In four years of Nowruz statements, he did not recite a single line of Persian poetry, opting instead to recount the words of two pre-Islamic emperors — Cyrus and Darius — to attack the Iranian government and highlight the dangers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It is of little surprise that the president who favors golden escalators and country club opulence would choose to swap the subtlety of verse for imperial bluster. The choice to only reference elements of Iran’s pre-Islamic past — and Cyrus in particular, became something of a pattern under his presidency, laced with Islamophobic undertones and resonating with a variant of Iranian nationalism that casts aside the country’s Islamic heritage.
There is an expectation that Biden’s Iran policy — like his Nowruz messages — will be closer to the version of Obama rather than Trump, especially with the administration’s expressed desire to return to the 2015 nuclear deal. But fewer things are less predictable than the ebb and flow of U.S.-Iran relations. Within his first 50 days as president, Biden initiated airstrikes against Iranian supported militias in Syria in response to an attack that killed a U.S. contractor in Iraq. Increased missile attacks on Saudi Arabia by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and the sabotage of Iranian oil tankers by Israel have the potential for military escalation between Iran and U.S. regional partners. Bad faith, uncertainty and skepticism seem as high as ever — and not just between the U.S. and Iran. Republican antagonism to Biden nominees with a hand in shaping the nuclear deal reveals that opposition to any of type engagement with Iran will be impassioned. The upcoming presidential election in Iran adds another variable: What future Iranian president would wish to stake their political capital on U.S. engagement after witnessing the fallout of the last four years?
The choice of lines from Persian poetry of all things could give us a cue as to how Biden wishes to frame the U.S. relationship with Iran amidst these ongoing dynamics, whether with cautious hope, heightened skepticism, or deep mistrust. Or maybe poetry just isn’t this president’s thing, and that’s okay too. The most pressing hope is that Biden and his Iranian counterparts recognize the ongoing human cost of strained U.S.-Iran relations, whether from sanctions, military actions, or otherwise. Lost lives, like lost time, cannot be rebought.
As the poetess Parvin Eʿtesami, who died at an age too young, once opined, “You can’t buy back time gone by — so don’t uselessly sell it, for this pure jewel is priceless.”
Kevin L. Schwartz is a research fellow at the Oriental Institute at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. He was previously a research fellow at the Library of Congress and distinguished visiting professor (Middle East Chair) at the US Naval Academy. Aria Fani is assistant professor of Persian and Iranian Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle.