Obama’s window into Iran

 In Iran, Obama

(Video from Reuters)

Since Obama's election, Americans have been treated to images of people around the world celebrating our choice for president in the streets. A number of reports take a particularly close look at the Iranian response, and they paint a complicated picture that reveals much about Iran's domestic politics.

There is clearly a window of opportunity with Iran, a ray of goodwill, that this election has opened, but it could very well fade fast. If President-Elect Obama quickly follows through on his campaign promises of negotiating directly with the Iranians, it could mean real progress on this crucial security front.

The response from Iran's hardliners currently in power is particularly interesting. Reading between the lines, one can detect what sounds like nostalgia for the saber-rattling of the Bush administration, which helped Iranian hawks solidify public support for their aggressive approach. Yesterday Reuters reported a military warning from Iran, taken by some to be directed at Obama:

Iran warned U.S. forces in Iraq on Wednesday that it would respond to any violation of Iranian airspace, a message analysts said seemed directed at the new U.S. president-elect more than neighbouring American troops.

The Iranian army statement, reported by state radio, followed a cross-border raid last month by U.S. forces into Syria, a move that was condemned by Damascus and Tehran.

But an Iranian politician said the timing suggested it was directed at Barack Obama, who won Tuesday's U.S. vote, more than the U.S. military, and might reflect concern by hardliners in Iran who he said thrived on confrontation with Washington….

"This is a clear message to the American president-elect because radicals are not very happy that Obama has been elected," said one Iranian politician, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.

But here's a more hopeful response, this time from Iran's intelligensia:

Saeed Leylaz, an economist, frequent critic of the government and editor of the Sarmaye newspaper, said Obama’s election could also have an impact on the country’s domestic politics. If the new president makes it clear that the U.S. isn’t out to change the Islamic republic’s regime, it will reduce the influence of more radical elements in Iran who took a hard-line stance against the Bush administration’s antagonism.

“Tehran supposed that the U.S. wants to destroy the regime. It seems that if Mr. Obama will start or will at least offer to start direct negotiations, especially about security issues, it will be much, much (easier) for the Iranian government and authorities to start better ties with the U.S.,” he said.

Leylaz also showed up in the LA Times expressing a sense of excitement that diplomatic overtures from Obama could provide political leverage from moderates inside Iran.

Obama's victory could take the wind out of the sails of hard-liners who have consolidated their power on the threat of an American attack and weekly chants of "Death to America!" at Friday prayers. Leylaz predicted that outreach by the Obama administration might spell the end of Ahmadinejad and usher in a more pragmatic government more amenable to compromise over Iran's nuclear program.

"The radicals will be weakened, because they have lost their partner in the United States," Leylaz said. "They cannot silence critics by saying we are under pressure by the United States if Mr. Obama starts direct negotiations."

In any case, it might be a tough sell to condemn a country whose leader's middle name is the same as that of the prophet Muhammad's grandson. Some in Iran entertain the theory that Obama, whose last name means "he's with us" in Persian, is partially descended from Iranians who migrated to East Africa centuries ago.

"There's an excitement," said Ahmad Bakhshayesh-Ardestani, a political scientist. "An individual who's of mixed race and who knows the Muslim world has become president of the U.S. He's different. It's inspiring."

The way Iran's state-controlled media handled their coverage of America's election is also telling. 

State-controlled Iranian media did its best to downplay Obama’s election as a simple repudiation of President Bush’s foreign policy rather than, say, an affirmation of American diversity or democracy.

In fact, television stations and radios tried their best to highlight the nondemocratic features of America’s electoral college system.

Iranian TV channels showed no footage of street celebrations in Indonesia or Kenya. And an analyst on one channel described Obama’s slogan of “change” as a matter of tactical image promotion rather than a strategic shift.

The Guardian canvassed Tehran's longest thoroughfare, stopping Iranians to ask them for their thoughts: 

"Obama was a good choice for Americans," said Ali Zadek, 29, a company director. "If they'd wanted confrontation with the rest of the world they would have chosen McCain. He added, half-joking: "I would like Americans to have elected someone like Ahmadinejad to be their president just so they would know how bad things are here."…

Seyyid Hossein, 30, a teacher, said: "Obama's victory could improve things because he has his head on his shoulders. But I believe the regime doesn't want better relations with the US. It wants to have a big enemy to frighten people and maintain its rule." …

Sergeant Siyavash Muhiti, in the camouflage uniform of the Iranian army's infantry corps, said: "We live in a global village and we need to help each other." But he warned: "Iranians don't have a good opinion of Americans. They need to accept our right to nuclear technology." …

Mohammed Jaafari, a young accountant, wanted Obama to launch direct talks with Iran on the nuclear issue. Sahar Hajezadeh, an adult education teacher, agreed: "We must not think in a negative way. Where there is a will there's a way."

Nasreen Vaniassad, a painter, said: "Obama is well-educated. Bush didn't have a good relationship with Iran. Its true that Ahmadinejad isn't easy, but maybe Obam
a will be able to work with him."

Meanwhile, political pressure is building on Obama to continue Bush's refusal to meet with Iran without preconditions. Israel has expressed it's unhappiness with the prospect of the US dealing directly with Iran, while members of the US foreign policy establishment have formed a pseudo-grassroots effort to stoke the public's fears about Iran. 

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Showing 6 comments
  • libhomo

    It fascinates me how similar Christian and Islamic fundamentalists are in wanting conflict between Iran and the US. Bush and his fellow fundies have been just as lustful for battle with Iran as their counterparts in that country.
    The specific religion, in many ways, is less important than the phenomenon of religious extremism itself.

  • Reva Patwardhan

    True, though I know many Christian fundamentalists (such as Pat Buchanan) oppose the neoconservative philosophy of foreign policy and are wary of war with Iran. Buchanan even warned against a McCain presidency because of this fear. But generally, I think it’s an interesting point to look at the similarities between the US and Iran. We both have our ornery fundamentalists who believe marriage should be defined as between one church and one state (hello, Prop 8 — and hello, Pat Buchanan). we both have charismatic jingoists (“you betcha!”) who magnify bogeymen abroad to distract us from our failing economies. And we both have our solid majorities who are fatigued of war and hope and pray for peace.

  • NoWarJim

    On a much more sophisticated level, it is groups like AIPAC that are driving the push for war with Iran. Obama and the Congressional dems have little use for the Christian Right. But it is AIPAC that got many of the Dems (and a large majority of Congress) to line up behind the infamous H Con Res 362 blockade resolution. Dems do not listen to Hagee sermons, but they do read the latest from WINEP, or Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the AIPAC-affiliated “think” tank that is “bipartisan”. It is groups like this that will have Congress’s ear, and since they generally lack spines and other *key* body parts for resisting the demands of pro-war lobbyists with heavy political clout, we have our work cut out for us.
    In that vain, i hope Peace Action folks can join us as we protest AIPAC’s membership dinner on Dec 9th in San Francisco. We will say Our NO to this pro-war/occupation lobby with our demand for an end to US aid for Occupation and No War with Iran.
    Bring your friends.

  • Reva Patwardhan

    We do need to pay attention to the people who can influence Obama on Iran, and you’re right, it ain’t Hagee. This is one group we’re watching: http://www.unitedagainstnucleariran.com/
    A couple things that make this group interesting:
    – their leadership includes men who have Obama’s ear. (Holbrooke, Ross)
    – their goal is apparently to stoke fears about Iran at the grassroots level.
    This is why it’s so crucial we ramp up our calls for diplomacy with Iran, not let fear control the terms of this debate, and not just trust that Obama will do the right thing on his own.

  • libhomo

    NoWarJim: AIPAC’s supposed power, which they advertise on their own website, is highly exaggerated. They are pawns of Big Oil, arms merchants, and mercenary companies. If AIPAC ever pushed an agenda in contradiction to that of their corporate masters, they would suddenly have “lost their power” in Washington.

  • NoWarJim

    libhomo: It wasn’t Big Oil that was the main force behind H Con Res 362 (the Iran War Resolution)last summer. Big Oil does not have more than half of Congress attending their big conference in DC every year. If anything, i suspect Big Oil would have been most happy if the US urged a fair settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and got it resolved long ago. It is aipac that is urging sanctions against Iran that is hurting the oil companies.
    You are right, however, aipac does not operate in a vacuum. Yes, there are other players involved. But aipac is about the only player where “liberal” politicians tend to praise with a religious-like ritual.
    In any case, we share an opposition to the crazy anti-peace positions of aipac. It’s coming to San Francisco to oppose human rights for Palestinians (on human rights day eve)and urge escalation with Iran. No matter your view of its power or lack thereof, it seems like a good time to protest, and make our presence known. Don’t you think the politicians inside with aipac need to hear that not everyone is of one mind on this?

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