Argument

The Message Obama Should Send to Iran

Last March, Barack Obama extended a hand to the Iranian government on the occasion of the country's New Year. This time, he should speak straight to the people.

Last spring, President Barack Obama broke dramatically with three decades of U.S. foreign policy by delivering a recorded message on the Persian New Year to the government and people of Iran. In addressing the leadership of the "Islamic Republic of Iran" -- the first time a U.S. president has ever used Iran's official name -- Obama signaled that Washington recognized the legitimacy of the government born of the 1979 revolution. And in delivering his message on the occasion of Nowruz, an ancient Persian spring ritual, he showed that it sought a rebirth of relations between the two countries.

Several months after Washington finally came to terms with the legitimacy of the Iranian government however, that legitimacy was cast in serious doubt by a tainted presidential election that spurred dramatic street protests on a scale not seen since 1979. If anything, Obama's extended hand played a role in accentuating Iran's deep internal divides, proving that Tehran, not Washington, is the principal impediment to a rapprochement.

While Obama's objective in last year's message was to reassure the Iranian government about U.S. intentions, the focus of this year's message should be to reassure the Iranian people about them. Perhaps something like this:

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

Today I would like to send my warm greetings to all those around the world celebrating Nowruz. I was delighted to see the U.S. Congress recently pass a resolution recognizing the richness of this ancient ritual. During this time of reflection and renewal, I would especially like to convey my thoughts to the people of Iran.

Throughout the last eight months, we here in the United States have witnessed your courageous struggle for freedoms that we often take for granted. We were awed when, despite being dismissed by your own leaders as "dirt and dust," millions of you took to the streets, in silence, to demand your right to be counted. We join you in mourning the tragic deaths of your brave youth, like Neda Agha-Soltan and Ramin Pourandarjani, whose sacrifices will long be remembered.

Beginning with my inauguration speech over one year ago, my administration has made a sincere attempt to try and change the fraught relationship between our two governments. We have pursued a policy of engagement, without preconditions, on the basis of mutual respect and mutual interests.

In this context, last spring I wrote a private letter to your leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, making it clear that the United States was genuinely interested in a path of reconciliation. Though he responded unenthusiastically nearly one month later, I nonetheless followed up with another letter, to underscore the seriousness of our intentions.

While our overtures have gone unreciprocated, the door of official dialogue between our two nations remains open, and the United States remains fully committed to a nuclear resolution that is both peaceful and equitable. Rest assured, however, that we do not and will not seek such a resolution at the expense of Iranians' aspirations for a more tolerant government that is accountable to its people.

As I have said in the past, I believe that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please, choose their own leaders, or assemble without fear. America's interests are not served by the denial of human aspirations.

In 1953, and throughout the Cold War, the United States erred in promoting Iranian stability over Iranian democracy and got neither. While valid skepticism about America's true intentions continues to linger, allow me to be crystal clear: It is in all of our interests to see Iran realize its centennial quest for democracy.

Today there are leaders in Tehran who openly articulate that enmity toward the United States is a fundamental pillar of the 1979 revolution and central to Iran's identity as an Islamic Republic. We in the United States believe this continued hostility is inimical to both countries' national interests. As a famous American statesman once put it, "There are few nations in the world with which the United States has less reason to quarrel or more compatible interests than Iran."

Iran is a proud, independent country, inheritor of one of the world's great civilizations. We in the United States welcome the day when Iran reclaims its rightful role in the concert of nations as an indispensable partner whose influence comes from its ability to create, not destroy. We welcome the day when Iranians and Americans can visit one another freely, unburdened by the political disputes of the past. I personally look forward to the day when I can experience firsthand the glory of Isfahan, the grandeur of Persepolis, and above all the renowned humanity of the Iranian people.

On this first day of spring, the day of revival, I would like to echo the words of the great Persian poet Hafez, who wrote many years ago that "A breeze of Nowruz is coming from a friend's quarters; Seek solace from this breeze to brighten your heart." On this day of a new beginning and the day of planting, nurturing, and growing, I want the noble people of Iran to know this: As you continue your long quest for self-determination, know that you have history, and the United States, on your side. Nowruz beh shoma khosh.

Sincerely,

Barack Hussein Obama

Argument

How Iraqi Oil Is Changing the World

OPEC could be in for a serious shake-up.

When the world's top oil-producing countries sat down today in Vienna, there was a new 800-pound gorilla joining them in the room. It's not a rising oil price, which now hovers at $80 per barrel; nor is it the U.S. Federal Reserve meetings, where governors will likely leave interest rates near flat. No, the 800-pound gorilla is far closer to home for most members of OPEC: It's Iraq.

If Baghdad's own projections are to be believed, Iraq could match Saudi Arabia's daily crude output of 10 million to 12 million barrels within the next seven years, up from just 2.5 million barrels today. That means price stability, OPEC's sine qua non, could go from being Saudi Arabia's solo prerogative to a shared franchise of two states: one an entrenched monarchy, the other an unruly democracy with an uncertain future. And since Iraq held a successful tender for new oil exploration work in December, the country's oil minister, Hussain al-Shahristani, has made it clear that Baghdad will ramp up production regardless of any restraints agreed upon by the world's oil cartel.

It would be quite a change from the near hegemony that Saudi Arabia enjoys within OPEC today. For decades, Saudi Arabia has served as the world's central banker of oil supplies. In unstable times, most famously in the wake of Iraqi's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, it has drawn from its spare production capacity of some 1 million barrels to bring prices to heel. Today, Iran weighs in at a distant second place within the cartel, producing just over 4 million barrels per day. So at this week's OPEC meeting, members paid Saudi Oil Minister Ali bin Ibrahim al-Naimi the appropriate levels of deference and respect. When Naimi appealed to his counterparts to keep production limits in place for the sake of a still-fragile global economy, most of them obeyed. When he departed for his ritual morning jog along the Viennese boardwalks, they likely said a quiet prayer for his safe return.

Iraq's revival as a prominent oil exporter is bound to reshuffle a careful power balance in the energy-rich Arab world, particularly between bitter rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saddam Hussein's 2003 toppling created a vacuum that both sides rushed to fill, for example deploying proxy forces at the height of Iraq's sectarian civil war. OPEC is another battlefield for the Saudi-Iran rivalry, and the Saudi kingdom is in no hurry to lose its uncontested status as No. 1. Now, as Iraq stabilizes politically and slowly rebuilds its oil-production capacity, both sides will have to accommodate a more assertive Baghdad. Even if oil production doesn't reach the Iraqis' goal, it will likely be higher than the approximately 1.7 million barrels per day that Iraq was producing just prior to the U.S. invasion.

"The Iraqis are saying, 'Look, we're not going to be on par with Iran; we have to be equal with Saudi Arabia,'" says Raad Alkadiri, an Iraq expert at PFC Energy, a Washington-based consulting firm. "They note how OPEC has benefited from the fact that Iraq has not produced to its potential, and given its reconstruction demands, its need of revenue must be acknowledged."

So the emergence of Baghdad as a rival to Riyadh could lead to some rancorous deliberations within the cartel. Naimi, highly regarded as a consensus-builder, will have to work overtime to win over Iraq when it comes to price targets; the last thing he'll want is a revitalized Baghdad openly defying production ceilings for the sake of revenue. He already has his hands full dealing with inveterate quota smashers like Iran and Venezuela, who routinely oversell to pay for their costly entitlement programs.

Of course, Iraq won't be ramping up production tomorrow. The biggest obstacles are political, not technical. Iraq's politicians, divided as they are along ethnic and sectarian lines, have yet to pass a petroleum law. The recent parliamentary elections are only expected to complicate matters, particularly as Iraq's Arab and Kurdish constituencies battle over who will control oil-rich Kirkuk.

Iraq also has yet to rebuild the expertise needed to develop its energy resources, and it will have to rely heavily on foreign help. The country's fraternity of energy elites, once considered the Middle East's finest, was scattered by decades of war and sanctions, followed by the U.S. invasion and the chaos that followed. To compensate, the best the Oil Ministry can do is usually to dispatch teams of administrators to work with foreign developers on new projects.

But though the challenges are clear, the country's projections are not entirely unfeasible. Having cleaned up the Iraqi Oil Ministry of the corruption that thrived under his predecessor, the resourceful Ahmed Chalabi, Shahristani has awarded a series of development contracts to oil giants ranging from independents like BP to state-controlled companies like China's Sinopec. They are structured so that the faster the developers pump oil, the greater will be their returns on investment. And even if Iraq could more or less double its daily crude output to 5.5 million within the decade, as Alkadiri and other oil analysts say is a more reasonable target, it would become the second-largest OPEC member, surpassing Iran.

That would effectively transform OPEC into a bipolar cartel, one in which close coordination between Riyadh and Baghdad would be vital for price stability. A mere ripple of tensions between the two sides, be they over production quotas or worse, geopolitics, could have dire consequences for energy markets.

Shahristani appears to have no delusions about how difficult the path he has set for himself will be. Although not a career oilman like Naimi, who learned his trade as a boy working for the Americans who controlled the Saudi oil industry before it was nationalized, Shahristani is at least shaping up to be a worthy junior partner.

That would be just the kind of gradual transition that reassures oil markets -- if not the Saudis.

STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images