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Reality check, anyone?

by JASON REZAIAN in San Francisco

12 Nov 2008 20:13No Comments
obama_4

[ comment ] I'm as excited as everyone about Obama's victory, but as far as U.S. -Iran relations go, I think we must wait and see. Furthermore, as citizens of both countries, we need to take some responsibility in how it will unfold. Ascribing mythical status to any leader, before his reign even begins, is dangerous. Iranians should know that better than anyone.

It's generally accepted now that although the two nations need each other badly they won't talk under their current leaderships. It's natural then that as observers with a vested interest in reconciliation we see signs of hope. The truth is, though, that we've seen similar signs before and while bestowing Shiite symbolism upon Obama may be popular right now, it is supremely unfair and can only backfire. It's the kind of simple thinking that has gotten people in trouble for eons.

Most will laugh at the idea, but after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, some Iranians likened George W. Bush to the Hidden Twelfth Imam, or the Mahdi, wondering when he would make the order to "liberate" Iran from the mullahs. Of course now they say it was all a joke, but this was a theme I heard often between 2001 and early 2003.

Finding a populace that is more pro-American than the people of Iran, especially in terms of culture, values and sociability is difficult. In the face of thirty years of harsh talk against their government by the U.S., often spilling into demonizing the people, Iranians have always maintained a strong respect and admiration for all things American. In my more recent trips to Iran, especially since the U.S. intervention in Iraq began to fail, I've seen a skepticism developing that I never experienced before.

As elated as many people in Iran I'm sure were upon Obama's election, if we are going to be honest about it, has little bearing on the day to day existence of the average Iranian: inflation and unemployment are still soaring, and while they'd like to see a different form of government, they're too busy figuring out ways to feed their families. What goes on in Washington is an abstract idea that only the privileged can stop and ponder.

The kind of hyperbole the media is attaching to Obama's election doesn't help anyone. It will only serve to disappoint in the long run.

From my perspective the one immediate thing that Obama's election succeeds in doing is breaking the idea that the U.S. government is under the ruthless grip of a cabal of old white men. Many in Iran, and for that matter the rest of the world (including right here in the U.S.), have long held that belief and this should go a long way to waking people up to the fact that the American system, when people participate, can work.

Still, for any real dialog to take place between the two governments it will have to happen in an air of mutual respect; unfortunately these two nations have distorted and inflated self-images. Ahmadinejad's letter, for example, is designed in such a way that no American president would ever respond to it the way the writer wants. There's a heavy-handed, "strings attached" approach that both governments are famous for, and no matter what kind of name the U.S. president has, nor what color skin, until the leaders are able to display the kind of hospitality and civility their people are known for, our dialog will remain between us: the people of the two nations.

Despite limited direct contact, Iranians and Americans have for years had their own dialog in the face of their governments' opposition. We meet online, some of us financially support Iranians or make purchases for them here in the U.S., and we travel back and forth sharing personal insights about the other.

While President Khatami famously hoped to start a dialog among civilizations, the idea that this is achieved at the state level undermines the work that thousands of people in Iran and the United States have been doing for years to promote friendly, people-to-people dialog between the two societies. Both heads of state would be wise to take a cue from their civilian populations and explore the commonalities, of which there are many, between the U.S. and Iran before we try to settle our differences.

Copyright © 2008 Tehran Bureau

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