Monday, Apr. 21, 2008
Iran Sees the US Primaries
By Scott MacLeod/Tehran
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's office and the
sitting rooms of high-ranking mullahs
to university campuses and the Farsi-language blogosphere,
Iranians are following the American presidential race more avidly than ever
before. That's partly because they're eager for the exit of President Bush, who
part of an "Axis of Evil" and implicitly raised the possibility of a
military strike against the country over its alleged nuclear weapons program.
But the Iranians' interest is also driven by a sense among many Iranians that
the candidacy of Barack Obama
offers real hope for repairing the U.S.-Iranian relationship. Commenting on the
Iranian preference for a Democrat in the White House, Sergei
Barseghian, a columnist for the reformist Etemad Meli newspaper
noted that in Farsi, the words Oo ba ma would translate as "He's with us."
Senator Obama would be the first to disagree with that, of course,
but the sympathy his candidacy has aroused among many Iranians stems from a
variety of factors, including his African heritage, his partly Muslim family
ties, and a belief that Obama would move to end
Washington's 30-year Cold War with Tehran — or at least reduce the prospect of
a U.S. military attack on the Islamic Republic. "I think people want him
to win," Shi'ite cleric Mehdi Karroubi, the reformist former parliament speaker defeated
by Ahmadinejad in Iran's 2005 presidential contest,
But Obama isn't the only candidate drawing careful scrutiny in Tehran. Some Iranians are
also intrigued by John McCain, pointing out that Henry Kissinger, a
"realist" McCain adviser, recently called for "direct
negotiations" between the U.S.
Nonetheless, many consider McCain a hawk and fear his experiences as an
American POW in the Vietnam War may hardwire him for hostility towards
revolutionary governments. All Iranians seem aware of McCain's "Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran"
Beach Boys imitation, and many take it as an indication of his inclinations.
Yet many anti-regime Iranians are praying — albeit quietly — for a McCain
victory. Some Iranians believe that Ahmadinejad also
favors McCain, in the belief that continued confrontation with the U.S. — as long
as it stops short of all-out war — will enable Iranian hard-liners to rally
popular backing against reformists who seek to improve ties with the West.
are divided on Hillary Clinton, largely basing their views on the record in the
Middle East of her husband, who Iranians
expect would effectively be her senior foreign policy adviser. Mohammed Atrianfar, an adviser to former President Akbar Hashemi
Rafsanjani, argues that Bill Clinton has a "peace-seeking image"
among Iranians. Then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright,
now a Hillary adviser, publicly accepted American responsibility for involvement
in the 1953 coup in Iran
and subsequent support for the repressive regime of the Shah. Iranian
diplomats complain, however, that Clinton also
imposed economic sanctions on Iran.
only the policy expectations that account for Obama's
popularity: his Third World ethnic background and the Muslim faith of his
father's Kenyan family — even his middle name, Hussein, the grandson of the
Prophet Muhammad and a revered figure in the Shi'ite
Islam practiced in Iran — offer points of affinity that some analysts believe
could give Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,
the political cover to make a gesture of reconciliation to the country long
decried in Tehran as "the Great Satan."
Obama's declared willingness to engage in
"aggressive personal diplomacy" with the Iranian leadership that has
generated the most interest among senior officials in Tehran,
since this would mark a sea-change in Washington's
approach. "Obama is a man of engagement, a man
of negotiations," one Iranian official told TIME. Amir Mohebbian,
an analyst close to Iranian conservative politicians, argues that "the
mentality of Iranian decision makers is ready for that." He adds: "I
think that the coming of Obama — maybe, maybe — helps
to solve this problem, but it needs bravery, from both sides."
are doubts, however. Many Iranians feel that the American political
establishment would put the brakes on any rapprochement until Iran ended its hostility toward Israel. There's
also concern in Iran that Obama's inexperience in foreign affairs may prompt him as
President to actually take a harder line on Iran rather than risk appearing to
be a weak leader.
precisely because of the attributes they find most positive in Obama, many Iranian leaders believe he's unlikely to be
Vice President Esfandiar Rahim
Mashaee, whose daughter married President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's son last week, told TIME that Obama "seems not a bad person" and said that, if
he were an American voter, he might even cast a ballot for the Illinois
Senator. But Mashaee thinks Iran will more
likely be facing McCain or Clinton in the White House. "It's far-fetched
that he will be allowed to become President," Mashaee
insisted. Pressed to elaborate, Ahmadinejad's deputy
declined to specify whether it was because of Obama's
race or other factors. He just laughed and exclaimed, "Let's make a bet on