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:
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:
“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.
"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.