Monday, Apr. 21, 2008

How Iran Sees the US Primaries

By Scott MacLeod/Tehran

From 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 branded Iran 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, told TIME.

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. and Iran. 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.

Iranians 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.

It's not 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."

But it's 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."

There 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.

And precisely because of the attributes they find most positive in Obama, many Iranian leaders believe he's unlikely to be elected. Iran's 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 it!"