Dispatch | Tehran Talks: The US Election as Seen by Iranians
18 Oct 2012 23:56
[ dispatch ] If there were global statistics regarding which nations have been paying the most attention to the U.S. presidential campaign, Iran would probably be at the top. The crushing sanctions imposed over the past year aimed at forcing Iran to curb or abandon its nuclear program have created more pain than ever for average Iranians. They see President Barack Obama as prepared to effectively destroy their country's economy even as he has shown that he is not eager to launch a military strike on the Islamic Republic.
On the other hand, they consider former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as George W. Bush redux, and many believe that, if elected president, he will order a military attack on Iran.
"I believe it would be better if Romney was elected. We will suffer for a month, and then we will be all set," says Ali Reza, 34, who peddles jeans around Rah Ahan Circle in south Tehran. What if armed conflict turns Iran into another Iraq? I ask. "That would be a catastrophe, by God!" he replies. "What can I say? They are both awful choices. Our luck here is that whichever way we turn, it's a misfortune."
Heading up to Vali Asr Square, I get into the front seat of a cab. The driver, Mahmoud, is playing a pop tune on his stereo. I ask him who he prefers, Obama or Romney. "This Islamic Republic that we see here needs a fist over its head. Obama has made a fool of himself for four years. Someone has to come and put these guys in their places."
Across from the Tehran City Theater stand three young adults -- two women and a man, students at the nearby Art College. I ask what they think of the American political system. Laleh, 21, says, "The two U.S. parties seem the same to me, except that the Democrats keep their cards over the table, while the Republicans keep them under the table. But the Democrats are quite slick."
I ask for her election prediction. "If Romney wins, Obama's long-term programs will be put aside. But it is clear that Obama will win."
Houman, 24, says that he has enjoyed following the campaign. "It's become complicated. It is very close."
Who does he prefer? I ask.
"There's no difference!"
"Not at all?"
"Their Iran policies match. Obama will have to get fervid too."
I remind him that Romney has criticized Obama for interceding on behalf of the Green Movement after its rise in 2009. Houman says, "Ya, I was totally against interceding. It would have made things worse."
I ask if he believes there would have been any difference if Romney had been in office? "Obama chose that position at the request of the Green Movement leaders and their own calculus. If Romney believes in the Green Movement, he should study some of Mir Hossein Mousvai's communiqués."
Mousavi, the former prime minister, issued a series of communiqués during and after his 2009 campaign as a reformist candidate for the Iranian presidency (the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was declared the winner of the June vote amid widespread accusations of electoral fraud). In his seventh of these statements, Mousavi said that the regime's crushing of domestic media outlets was opening the door to foreign intervention.
In his ninth communiqué, issued in July 2009 after the postelection protests and their violent suppression by the authorities, he added, "No matter how bitter this situation, it's a feud between kindred, and we will regret it if we act immaturely and involve outsiders."
Houman glances at his watch and sees that he has time to continue with the conversation. "The Republicans who attack Obama about the Green Movement didn't speak up back then."
He replies, "He is better than other Republican candidates, more moderate and more realistic." He adds, "He seems to be a more intelligent person compared to George Bush's team."
With no security agents visible in the immediate vicinity, Golnoosh, who appears to be Houman's girlfriend, is clasping his arm. "The issue of Iran has no effect on the U.S. voters," she says. "Look, [former Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger in his recent interview said the same things about Iran as [Ambassador to the United Nations] Susan Rice and [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton have said. American foreign policy has never been so homogeneous over the last decade."
"Because they have gone through major crises, like the Iraq war and Bin Laden, and nobody relishes making up new crises."
Houman agrees. "Obama himself knows that this is not the time to attack Iran."
"The Republicans lament that America's greatness has been tarnished around the world," I offer. "Wouldn't a military attack on Iran rejuvenate American supremacy?"
Golnoosh says, "There is no doubt that the U.S.'s prominence has been sullied, but that is due more to the effects of economic difficulties than to foreign policies."
Houman again supports her position. "American supremacy hasn't declined because of Iran or al-Qaeda. If the U.S. attacks Iran, will China shrink? Will Russia? No."
Golnoosh says, "Economically, Obama has acted well. He can restore supremacy without war."
"You saw how Obama played his trump card?" she adds, referring to the U.S. Labor Department's announcement of the drop in the unemployment rate to 7.8 percent, the lowest rate in three and half years.
The next day I talk to Jallil, the owner of an Internet café. He staunchly supports a U.S. military attack on Iran. He jokes, "If Obama promises to attack Iran, he'll have my vote."
He has no love for Romney, on the other hand. "Obama is much wiser. Romney is a cowboy in its truest sense. He reminds me of our own Ahmadinejad."
I ask Jallil about his view of U.S. democracy. After acknowledging that his perceptions are naturally limited because, after all, he is observing things in America from a great distance, he continues. "In judging it from afar, two things have always bothered me about the United States. First, they are so dumbly religious. As Richard Dawkins has said, American's fathers, Washington, Franklin, and Lincoln, would have certainly acted differently if they knew that their country would get to a point that it would be political suicide if a politician announced himself as nonreligious or atheist.
"Second, because AIPAC is so abnormally powerful, Israel has become a ridiculous red line for these people [American politicians], while they have no such influence in France, Germany, and England."
Jallil says that he watched interviews with Democratic and Republican politicians during their parties' respective conventions. "These people acted differently as soon as Israel came up, as if Israel has priority over everything else. As you saw, Obama himself has come out and said that 'my country's interests have priority over Israel's.' Imagine, when the president of the United States says such a thing and it's considered weird. Why should it be weird when a president talks about his country's interests?"
Of course, not everyone in Iran is following the U.S. presidential campaign and American political issues so closely. In Ekbatan, a west Tehran neighborhood developed in the 1970s, I meet Mahmoud, an Afghan laborer. As he struggles to lift a heavy stone with a pulley, he says, "I like the black guy. I only ask that someone comes [to power] that makes the economic situation here better." He continues to pull on the rope and I choose not to tire him with more questions.
I go to North Niavaran Street, in northeast Tehran, to meet with a semi-retired opposition political activist for a discussion of democracy and U.S. elections. In a chic residential tower, I ride up in a fully mirrored elevator cab to his floor. For security reasons, I have agreed not to use even his first name -- I'll refer to him as Kourosh. Inviting me into his apartment, he leads me to his office, which adjoins a magnificent library.
Koroush has little praise for the contemporary American version of democracy. He says, "Liberal democracy is generally praised in comparison to its historical predecessor, feudal rule. Of course, liberal democracy is preferable to imperial rule such as Haile Selassie's in Ethiopia. But it's useful to compare the current democratic situation in the U.S. with the original intentions and goals of its founders, the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. As the U.S. has moved away from free competition, free enterprise, and the governing [ideals] of thinkers like Jefferson, Adams, Paine, Lincoln, Washington, and others, and toward huge financial and industrial corporate monopolies, it has equally moved away from liberal democracy."
I ask of his view of the American electoral system. Koroush suggests that most people around the world are unaware that the U.S. president is elected not by popular ballot but by an electoral college that runs counter to the idea of one person, one vote.
He shifts to a different theme. "Right-wingers and totalitarians have a strong affinity with [U.S.] Republicans. That means, there's no doubt that the war-mongering faction, of cold and hot varieties, pray day and night that someone gets the job who can aim all regional and worldwide weapons onto Iran."
My 57-year-old host says, "Conservative forces suffer from Democratic policies in the United States: peace, cordial coexistence, human rights, diversity, et cetera."
Kourosh fetches an ashtray and lights up a cigarette. I ask him bluntly if he believes a Democratic or Republican victory would be better for Iran.
"Frankly, Democrat! Perhaps their contemplative and patient ways will not satisfy the 'opponent crushing' Republicans in face of Iran's adventurous policies, but true reformists will definitely welcome Democrats. The priority for the region, and Iran, is maintenance of peace, even a fragile peace. Other issues, such as our form of government, rulers and and their relationship with the people, managing nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes, overcoming slow development, and so forth, are issues we can take care of ourselves."
He concludes, dismissing the prospect of intervention with a sarcastic edge, "We don't need to burden the gents there!"
At the Azadi subway station, I wait for a train to Mirdamad. The platform is packed and, as is common in the Tehran metro, strangers fall into conversation with each other. A woman approaches to ask me about the direction of one of the trains. I'm unable to answer her question, but maybe she can talk to me about the U.S. election?
Azita, 34, is a photographer. I summarize some of Kourosh's thoughts for her, and ask if she thinks Romney is dangerous for Iran. She asks me in return, "Isn't Obama dangerous? Wouldn't he strike Iran if it comes to it? Wouldn't he?"
Before I can respond, she poses another query. "Have you forgotten Clinton's attack on Sudan?"
I ask if she is referring to the 1993 battle in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, known to Americans as Black Hawk Down.
No, she means the 1998 missile attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan. She continues, "Didn't the U.S. participate in attacks on Libya under a Democrat? Not just a few Democratic presidents have started wars.... Obama would also attack Iran. Have no doubt."
In a secluded coffee shop off Yousehabad Avenue, I meet with a young political activist, Adel. I ask him about the fact that for over 150 years, only Democrats and Republicans have been elected to the White House.
"Well, not just any party can gain power in every democracy," he responds. "And these two have got roots. The problem is when they really, actually prevent someone from [engaging in] political activity, which I don't think is so.
"By the way, Mr. [Karl] Popper, the liberal philosopher, preferred two-party systems over multiparty ones."
Adel continues, "I don't think Romney will get the job. If he does, he will be more aggressive than Obama, but he will not attack either.
"Given the situation, it would be foolish to attack, unless it was instigated by Israel. I mean, why should the U.S. waste its budget starting another war while sanctions are producing such good results?"
Those "good results," of course, are reflected in a steadily worsening Iranian economy. Hamid Reza, an insurance broker, after complaining at length about current economic conditions, says, "The U.S. is the most important country in the world. For this reason, it needs a president who's able to be a multitask mule, like Obama. For us, Obama doesn't differ from Romney. The U.S. will not step beyond sanctions, nor will it step back from them."
And then there are those, such as 42-year-old Mehdi, a family counselor, who see American electoral politics as no more than a show, a pretense. "Do you really think that Obama or Romney are truly in charge of U.S. policies?" he asks. "Everything there is managed behind the scene," he says. "Oil cartels choose who comes and who goes."
Photo credit: Darband, in north Tehran, earlier this week (Mehr News Agency). See "The Choice" on Frontline.
Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau