Cautious optimism over Iranian support for Obama

Middle East experts are divided on the subtext of statements by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas leader Ismaïl Haniyeh in support of Barack Obama's election to the US presidency.


Public endorsements of president-elect Barack Obama by the leaders of two avowed foes of the US - Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas leader Ismaïl Haniyeh - on Thursday prompted cautious optimism from Middle East experts.

Ahmadinejad, known for his feisty rhetoric on the broad topics of US foreign policy, Israel's right to exist and Iran's right to develop its nuclear program, offered rare praise for a US leader.

"I congratulate you on being able to attract the majority of votes of the participants of the election," he said, in a message to Obama carried by the state news agency, IRNA. "You know the opportunities bestowed upon people by God are short-lived."

Hamas, meanwhile, which rules the Gaza Strip, expressed willingness to hold talks with Obama, even though Washington considers the Islamist movement a terror group.

"We are ready to hold a serious dialogue with the new US president," Agence France-Presse quoted Haniya, who heads the Hamas government in the Palestinian territory, as saying.  "We hope the new US president will learn from the mistakes of the previous administration and give up the policy of bias towards Israel."

The comments came despite Obama's public support for Israel's refusal to negotiate directly with Hamas during a visit to the Jewish state in July.

Meanwhile, another group being watched by Middle East experts for its reaction to an Obama presidency - the Lebanon-based Shiite group Hezbollah - had made no public statement as of late Thursday.

However, several commentators on the region were quoted as saying the group viewed Obama as the lesser of two evils.

According to Rafiq Khoury, editor of the independent Lebanese daily Al-Anwar, "Hezbollah's key concern is that no military strike be ordered on Iran, which is their main supporter." Obama, he said, was viewed as someone "who will not wage war on Iran."

Ahmadinejad - congratulations without recriminations

Experts differed on whether Ahmadinejad's statement was a genuine effort to improve dialogue with the US or merely window dressing ahead of his own tough election battle for the Iranian presidency in early 2009.

Mark N. Katz, professor of government and politics at George Mason University, Virginia, who has visited Iran twice and written extensively about the region and relationships between revolutionary regimes and status quo powers, viewed Ahmadinejad's comments positively.

"I think that this is actually a signal of willingness to talk.  The truculent language is meant to show domestic and other Middle Eastern audiences that Tehran is not begging for a rapprochement," he told France 24.

Asked if he felt the endorsement had the full backing of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader who has yet to make a statement and who last week said hatred of Washington was deep-seated while praising the students who led the 1979 siege of the US embassy in Tehran, he said:

"I don't know for certain, but I suspect that Khamenei does not disapprove of Ahmadinejad's expressed willingness to talk. Having Ahmadinejad make these statements may be intended to protect Khamenei's prestige if it all falls through."

Dr. Trita Parsi, president and founder of the Washington DC-based National Iranian American Council, saw in Ahmadinejad's comments an attempt to position himself for the 2009 election.

Although the hardline president has yet to announce he will seek re-election in the vote on June 12, he is expected to run despite mounting criticism from conservatives and reformists alike over his management of economy, as the country struggles with soaring inflation which topped 29 percent at the end of September.

"With the presidential elections in Iran next year, Ahmadinejad has been seeking to reposition and reinvent himself," said Dr. Parsi, an expert and the author of several books on US-Iran relations.

"If president-elect Obama pursues a policy of diplomacy, Ahmadinejad's continued presidency will become a complicating factor in Washington due to his toxic political quality. Hence Ahmadinejad's efforts to improve his image.  This is also important for another reason. If diplomacy with the US fails, Ahmadinejad does not want to be perceived to be the cause of the failure by virtue of his image or rhetoric, since that can cost him much public support in Iran."

Dr. William Quant, of the University of Virginia, warned against a cynical interpretation of Ahmadinejad's comments, saying that while the Iranian president may be sceptical about White House policy on Iran, in Obama "we are seeing a new president who from the beginning adopted a different approach" to relations with the Middle East "and who frankly hasn't used any of the insulting rhetoric, like 'axis of evil'.. used by his predecessors" when referring to Iran.

Fighting words

Ahmedinejad's endorsement on Thursday was not devoid of the challenging tone for which the Iranian leader is well-known.

He told Obama: "You are generally expected to make a fast and clear response to the demands for basic... change in US domestic and foreign policy, which all people in the world and Americans want on top of your agenda."

He said Obama was expected to replace US "militaristic policies, occupation ... and the imposition of unfair and discriminatory relations with an attitude based on justice, respect for nations' rights and non-interference."

"The US government's interference should be limited to that country's geographical boundaries," Ahmadinejad said, according to IRNA.

Iran and the United States have had no diplomatic relations for nearly three decades since Islamist students took American diplomats hostage for 444 days following the 1979 Islamic revolution which toppled the US-backed shah.

Hostility has since deepened, with the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini branding the United States the "Great Satan" while President George W. Bush denounced Iran as part of an "axis of evil".

The escalation of Iran's nuclear standoff with the West against a backdrop of defiant and inflammatory rhetoric from Ahmadinejad has even raised the spectre of an American military strike against Tehran.

The US accuses Iran of meddling in Iraq and sponsoring "terrorism" by backing militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, while Ahmadinejad has triggered international outrage by calling for Israel to be wiped of the map.

Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said on Wednesday that Obama's election is an "evident sign" that Americans want basic changes in policy.

In a statement on the Iranian government website, meanwhile, spokesman Gholamhossein Elham called on Obama, "who has won the confidence of the American people with the promise of change" to "bring fundamental changes to the United States' approach to world questions in respect of human rights and to end the policy of domination and aggression against other countries."

Such changes could "improve the image of the United States and overcome the growing mistrust towards America," Elham said.

Professor Katz, though, pointed to the differences between how Iran's government viewed America and how its citizens saw the future of relations between the two countries.

"I have been to Iran twice - in 1992 and 2005.  I was truly amazed at how pro-American Iranians are - and I met people from all walks of life," he said.  "Iranian public opinion is very different from the Arab world's regarding the US.  Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising: Iranians don't like their government, therefore they have positive feelings toward its primary critic. Whether this is true or not, I think that Iranian public opinion is definitely hoping for improved US-Iran ties."


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