Iran Encounters Obama

Expectations of Barack Obama’s ability to influence US-Iran relations should be realistic, but even an unsuccessful US attempt to reach out has merit. If it becomes evident that hardliners in Iran – not America – are blocking better relations, internal elite and popular opposition could build, potentially creating large, unpredictable cleavages within Iran's political system.

WASHINGTON, DC – Since its Islamist revolution of 1979, Iran’s hardline leadership has relentlessly painted America as a racist, bloodthirsty power bent on oppressing Muslims worldwide. Nothing punctures this narrative more than the election of an African-American, Barack Obama, who supports dialogue with Iran and whose middle name – Hussein– is that of the central figure in Shi’a Islam. While the Bush administration’s policies often served to unite Iran’s disparate political landscape against a common threat, an Obama presidency could accentuate the country’s deep internal divisions.

Though intolerant conservatives are currently in firm control of Iran’s government, the moderates and reformists among the political elite – dormant but not dead – may be resuscitated by Obama’s victory. They were swept out of power by hardliners who used the country’s jittery sense of security – accentuated by the presence of tens of thousands of American troops in neighboring countries – as a pretext to rig elections, stifle dissent, and reverse political and social freedoms. But reformists are likely to mount a rigorous challenge to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as he seeks re-election in June 2009. 

Similarly, for Iran’s young population – the least anti-American in the Middle East – there is now renewed hope for reconciliation with the United States, something that seemed impossible during the Bush years. While popular skepticism toward American policies lingers, there remains a widespread recognition among Iranians that their country will never emerge from isolation or fulfill its enormous potential as long as its relationship with the US remains adversarial. The Iranian public, sidelined and disillusioned in recent years, is set to reemerge on the political scene.

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