Dispatch | The Iranian Take on Obama's Reelection
12 Nov 2012 23:32
Despite sanctions, U.S. president still widely popular in Iran.
[ dispatch ] As dawn broke over Tehran this past Wednesday, international media outlets delivered the news of Barack Obama's victory over Mitt Romney in the U.S. presidential election.
"This is a very good event," says Reza, the proprietor of a traditional kebab restaurant in east Tehran. I have walked down an ornate mirrored stairway to the office where he receives me. Pictures of Imams Ali and Hossein hang behind his desk. "Obama is gold for us. Gold!
"I remember how boldly Obama told Romney in their debate, 'It seems you are preparing for another war, to decimate people, like in Iraq and Afghanistan.'" The president didn't actually say anything like that in the candidates' three debates, but Reza's opinion is clear. He utters an expletive directed at Romney and adds, "Obama is very good for us."
He pulls out his cell phone and says jokingly, "I will send him an SMS...well, I don't have time now, but I will do it tonight and congratulate him on behalf of Ahmadinejad." He erupts into hearty laughter.
On November 7, 2008, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the first president of the Islamic Republic to congratulate a victorious U.S. presidential candidate. "I congratulate you on being able to attract the majority of votes of the participants of the election," he declared in an official statement. "You know the opportunities bestowed upon people by God are short-lived.... You are generally expected to make a fast and clear response to the demands for basic...change in U.S. domestic and foreign policy, which all people in the world and Americans want on top of your agenda." Ahmadinejad was abroad this past week, participating in the Bali Democracy Forum, and there has been no report that he has congratulated his American counterpart a second time.
Reza is so elated by Obama's reelection that he says he doesn't even mind if the sanctions continue. Imitating a style of loutish bravado known as laati in Tehran, he drawls, "How decent, these sanctions! They will serviss [abuse] the regime. With Obama back again, things will be just fine by Nowruz. I give you my oath." Chuckling, he says, "So good that you'll be a groom next year! If you aren't married already."
Separately, Maryam, 26, an English translator from the northern coastal city of Rasht, agrees with Reza. Via Skype, she tells me, "Obama is such a totally adorable personality."
"Well, I agree with his politics. He is more into doing than talking about doing." She adds with a laugh, "Besides, he is a handsome type."
Wednesday afternoon, I ask Nima, 24, an IT student waiting for an empty seat in an Internet café, if he has heard the election results. "It's not been announced yet. They are not like us to announce the results overnight." He is making a deadpan joke about the announcement that Ahmadinejad had won the 2009 Iranian presidential election with 63 percent of the vote, which came within seven hours after the polls closed. In previous elections, results were announced 24 hours or even longer after the last vote was cast.
"I think Obama will win," Nima adds. I tell him that in fact Obama has won. "Well, Obama was not very different from the other one. But I like U.S. elections anyway. For example, Google did something cute, making its logo resemble a [ballot box]. I am only happy for one reason for Obama's return, and that is that the other guy looked like a real airhead."
An activist in Tehran told Tehran Bureau that, in his view, the overwhelming sentiment in Iran, among those who were cognizant of the U.S. presidential election, was positive. "There was a visceral fear of a Romney presidency in terms of a possible war," he says. "But I imagine the leadership is upset that Obama won because Obama has proven to the most effective president in the past 32 years in terms of isolating and weakening the Iranian regime. The leadership is under the impression -- rightly or wrongly -- that behind the scenes, it's easier to strike deals with Republicans."
At the same time, Mehmanparast described the policies of "U.S. officials from both parties...in the last 33 years" as "against the Iranian people" based on "antagonistic views." He concluded, "Any evaluation of the promise of change will depend on the actual policies and decisions of U.S. officials."
While Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has so far remained silent on Obama's victory, the brothers Larijani -- judiciary chief Sadegh and Majles Speaker Ali -- who are close to the Supreme Leader, attacked Obama vehemently following his reelection.
"Four years ago too, Obama entered the arena with the slogan of change and announced that he was extending a cooperative hand toward Iran," declared Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, "but in practice, different behavior took place and unprecedented sanctions were enacted against Iran."
"A relationship with the U.S. is not trivial. But after so much coercion and debauchery against the Iranian people by the U.S., such a relationship is impossible overnight," he continued. "We believe that anytime that the U.S. cuts its losses, it will be to its benefit, and if it should bow to the nobility of the Iranian people and attain the people's trust, then it has reached mental maturity."
Ali Larijani adopted a still harsher tone, calling Obama's escalation of sanctions "economic dictatorship."
According to Thursday's lead editorial in the right-wing Kayhan daily, which is under Khamenei 's effective control, "Obama is a diminished Bush, just as the America of 2012 is a steam-shrunken 2001 America. The rate of murderous acts during Obama's reign has not been any lower than in Bush's term."
Two months ago, like most other conservative dailies, Kayhan attacked Ahmadinejad after he expressed his readiness to improve relations with the United States during his trip to New York City to address the U.N. General Assembly. "Obama is powerless to resolve important challenges like Iran and other regional issues," last week's editorial declared.
Hassan and Massoud, two men in their 30s whom I meet in a traditional teahouse, have a better impression of the American president. "I love Obama's oratory. He is unmatched," says Hassan. He mentions a report on state television which "revealed" that Obama often uses prepared remarks and a teleprompter for his speeches. Hassan asks with a sneer, "So this is Iranian TV's exposé? They must not be very busy!"
Massoud says, "One question makes me wonder. Why have Republican candidates always looked like idiots? Even their demeanors are idiotic: Nixon, Reagan, Bush -- the father and the son."
They return to the topic of the election. "Obama was so liked that he was declared the victor before votes were tallied in eight of the states," observes Hassan.
"Nonetheless, Obama didn't say very nice things in his victory speech," says Ali, 24, who has sat down at our table. "He boasted about the military. He said, 'We have the best military in the world, the most effective military in the world.'"
Hassan interjects to correct him, "No. That was at the start of his speech and that is not what he said. He said, 'We have four more years ahead of us, with the best military in the world.' Then everyone started applauding. When they were quiet, Obama continued, 'At the same time, we seek peace, a kindhearted U.S., a generous U.S.'"
"So, if the U.S. attacks Iran under Obama's leadership," says Massoud, "it means that Washington has had no other option, because he is not like Bush who had an itch for wars. In addition, the world trusts him and believes his words."
The subject turns to America's first lady. "Just look at Obama's spouse. Compare her with George Bush's wife," says Massoud. "His wife has been very important to his popularity." He adds with a smile, "Many voted more for Michele Obama than for Barack Obama."
Massoud believes that Obama's reelection will make negotiations between the United States and Iran more likely. He refers to the third Larijani brother, Mohammad Javad, head of the judiciary's human rights office. According to a report from the semiofficial Mehr News Agency, in a speech to a group of educators Larijani emphasized that such negotiations were not taboo. "If the regime's interests demanded, we would negotiate with the U.S., or with anyone else, even in the depths of hell," he declared.
Lighting a cigarette, Hassan says, "Swear to God, Obama is a decent person. On Tuesday, I wished so much to have been a U.S. citizen, just to be able to vote for him."
Thursday afternoon, I meet Ali, a food delivery driver. "I am not into these things. I can't get my head around politics," he says in response to news of Obama's victory. But then he continues, "I don't know what a Democrat or a Republican is. But with George Bush's face in mind, I wanted for someone to win who wouldn't just attack Iran irrationally. And Obama has such a personality."
Ali was a child during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. "When the war erupted, the situation was very bad. We even had shortages of potatoes. So much bloodshed. I really worried about the war. When I learned Obama had won, my mind relaxed."
What does he think of Obama on a personal level? "Look, I don't know if I like him somewhat because he is dark-skinned, but it seems that I know him," Ali replies. "One of our own. A tireless person."
Abbas, a 61-year-old retiree who used to work in the Communications Ministry, has brought his granddaughter to the park on this cool autumn afternoon. He also feels a kinship with Obama due to his race. "See, not that I want to look at it emotionally," he says. "That a dark-skinned person has managed to become the U.S. president shows him to be a successful person -- a very successful person. I am sure he is adulated in the U.S. too, and the spirits of many of his race have been lifted. I love Barack Hussein Obama's charisma."
Abbas says the president has other strengths, as well. "He has been observing the globe for a long four years. And this is the critical point." I ask him if Romney had not also observed the world during the same period. "Listen, dear, Obama had an executive position. He has been at the heart of issues. He's tuned to the treble and the bass." He adds, "He has been patient with Iran, has dealt with this regime for four years and has a mountain of experience."
Although Obama's race appeals to Abbas and Ali, some websites close to the Ahmadinejad administration such as Raja News have taken a derisive view, as reflected in the headline "The White House Remains Host to the Black President."
This tone was criticized by the Aftab News Agency, affiliated with Hassan Rowhani, former head of the National Security Council and lead nuclear negotiator during the presidency of Ahmadinejad's predecessor, the reformist Mohammad Khatami. According to an Aftab editorial, "If insult and derision serve the ideology of the journalist then they are allowed, but it is clear that when reporting Obama's victory over Romney, his race is too often evoked. The reporter and the editor, despite being aware of the moral repugnance of racism among the public inside and outside the country, don't find themselves accountable to the readers. They despise Obama, and in their attempt to satisfy a personal, despicable feeling, they believe embracing racist styles is acceptable. The end justifies the means!"
The experienced journalist Serge Barseghian, in a lead editorial for the reformist Areman daily, called Obama "the voice of change." He wrote, "Once more the voice resounded, once more votes were cast, once more a path was chosen; the voice that was heard four years ago resounded once more tonight, the night of electoral victory."
I pay a visit to another well-known reformist journalist, whose name I agree not to reveal. Is my host, who writes on foreign policy, happy with Obama's reelection? "I adore Obama!" is the response. "Obama reminds me of the founding fathers, of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln."
I ask about Obama's position vis-à-vis Iran.
"See, some say that Republicans would have been better for the regime. Their rational is that Romney felt transatlantic alliances to be incapacitating, like George Bush did. But Obama has created transatlantic alliances. He has filled the fissure between the U.S. and Europe, and this is detrimental [they say] to the Islamic Republic."
My host sighs. "How much longer are we going to look at issues in such ways? How much longer should we form our foreign policies based on discords between other democracies? We need to abandon such points of view."
What are the odds that Obama will again extend a hand of friendship to Iran in his inaugural address? "The hand of friendship talk doesn't work any more. He tried it a few times and the Leader slapped it away.
"Certainly he will suggest negotiations from a different point of view and with a different discourse. But first the Iranian presidential election has to be resolved." That takes place next June.
Despite the harsh sanctions imposed by his administration, most educated, middle-class Iranians are pleased to see Obama in the White House. But those with meager incomes whose families' livelihoods have been endangered by sanctions are not joyed by his reelection.
A few yellow vans stand in front of a private school, waiting to transport the students home. Arash, one of the drivers, gets out of his van to smoke a cigarette. I ask if the U.S. election results have made him happy. "Not at all, man," he answers. "We have to put up with these mullahs four more years. Mr. Obama imposes sanctions and that strengthens [the regime] further, and [makes] us more destitute. I wished, so wished, that Romney would come and end our misery, come and finish them off. But alas."
Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau