In February of 2007, when I was sitting with former President Khatami of Iran in his office in North Tehran, he asked me about Barack Obama, whom Iranians were hearing (and were very curious) about. "He could be the next president," I said, "but you know, his middle name is Hussein, and that won't go over well with many Americans." President Khatami was surprised to hear of Obama's father's Muslim connection of Obama's, one that he hadn't ever bothered to deny. "Ajab! Really?" he said with a big smile. The idea that a Black man might be taken seriously in a run for his party's nomination was surprising enough to the Iranian leadership and to most ordinary Iranians, but a Black man with a Muslim middle name, the name of the prophet's grandson and a Shiite saint, was almost too much to consider. At 7am Tehran time on the 15th of Aban, 1387, while the race for the presidency is not yet called but is all but over, and as many Iranians turn on their televisions and radios and tune into CNN or the BBC through their millions of illegal satellite dishes, or even their own State news networks (who do not want to appear to devote too much attention to the U.S. elections), it no longer is.
The Iranian revolution, born almost thirty years earlier, had been a revolution of the oppressed, and Iranian revolutionaries, still very much in charge in Iran, had a soft spot for African-Americans, who they viewed as the oppressed in America. The sentiments that led Ayatollah Khomeini and those revolutionaries to release all the African-American hostages at the US embassy in Tehran within a week or so of the takeover in 1979 had not died, despite the decades of animosity between U.S. administrations, its Black officials included, and Iran. A year and a half later, in early September of 2008, I was back in Khatami's offices in Jamaran, Tehran, and he, along with most Iranians, was contemplating an African-American president in America. All of Iran had watched the two political conventions on satellite television, and although Sarah Palin was deemed a cynical but smart selection for V.P., there was both astonishment that Obama might actually win the presidency combined with a fatalistic disbelief that Americans would actually end up voting for him (or that, for the conspiracy-minded, such as President Ahmadinejad, the idea that he would be allowed to become president).
Tonight, as Americans have apparently decided they would prefer Senator Obama to Senator McCain as their next president, and as the "military-industrial complex" or whatever cabal of special interests (if they exist or have the power, as conspiracy theorists around the world claim) have been either unable or unwilling to prevent Americans from making that choice, there is a sigh of relief, and disbelief, in many quarters in the Middle East, including in Iran. Iran has long wished for a real détente with the U.S.; a détente that recognized Iran's legitimacy as an Islamic Republic, as a sovereign nation with its own concerns and interests, but above all, a détente based on mutual respect and recognition of Iran's legitimate rights under international law. And of course the Iranian people overwhelmingly want relations with the U.S., something firebrand President Ahmadinejad, perhaps the most hard-line and conservative of Iran's presidents since the early days of the revolution, recognizes. He has gone further in attempting an outreach to America than most other Iranian leaders, including his unprecedented writing of a letter to the U.S. president, but so far to a deafening silence from the Bush administration.
While Iranians are under no illusions that the distrust and antagonism that exists between their country and the United States will disappear overnight, they are also hopeful that American foreign policy towards them will, at the every least, be re-directed towards understanding and reconciliation rather than demonization, hegemony, and military threats. Iran, which generally tries to stay away from appearing to endorse, and therefore interfere, in the elections of any foreign country, couldn't resist the temptation this year. State radio on Monday broadcast a commentary in favor of Obama, saying, "Obama entered the race under the slogan of change. The American people expect their government to put aside neo-conservative policy of unilateralism and return to dialogue in their dealings with the international community."
The disbelief and even shock that some Iranians might feel as they wake up on Wednesday the fifth of November, just as the news networks here are calling the election for Obama, is partly because the American people, and the American system, have shown that the promise of America, an empty one to them and many others across the globe for the past eight years, is once again alive and well. A remarkable opportunity has opened up, for both the U.S. and Iran, to begin the process of reconciliation, and Iranians are hoping that President Obama views this opportunity as they do. He will have an extraordinary amount of goodwill from the Iranian people, and the government will find it very hard to demonize him as they have previous American politicians. When I was in Tehran in August and September of this year, many ordinary Iranians had already begun, as Persians are wont to with those they admire, to claim Obama as their own. What had started as a joke, that Obama's family had Persian ancestry and were originally from Bushehr on the Persian Gulf (once a major trading post with Africa), was fast becoming accepted by some as possibly true, even, to my surprise, some in the educated elite.
President Obama, his future cabinet, and his advisors, need only make the effort to understand Iranians; to understand their culture, their motivations, the nuance in their rhetoric, and their ambitions, to engage in what could very easily be fruitful negotiations with Iran over everything from the nuclear issue to Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Palestine/Israel. What is rarely mentioned in our media, and what the U.S. government has refused to acknowledge ever since it inducted Iran into the "axis of evil", is how often U.S. and Iranian interests intersect rather than collide, something every single politician, from the reformists to the conservatives, has told me in Iran.
It was exactly twenty-nine years ago today, November 4th, 1979, that Iranian student revolutionaries overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took its diplomats hostage, a painful memory for most Americans and the cause of the rupture in relations between the U.S. and Iran. Two months ago when I walked past the embassy in downtown Tehran, one could still clearly make out the imprint of the seal of the embassy, eagle and all, on a wall. For twenty-nine years, the Iranians had not bothered to erase every last symbol of what they call American Imperialism. And of course every year, including this one, the Iranian government stages rallies and demonstrations in front of that former embassy (now a rarely visited museum of the "den of spies" and a Revolutionary Guards barracks), rallying the faithful, albeit a less and less enthusiastic faithful each year, to illustrate Iran's resistance to Imperialism. If President Obama has the will, perhaps the seal can go back up on that wall, exactly where its outline is clearly marked, and the Iranian government needn't trouble itself with organizing a thirtieth anniversary demonstration.
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