TEHRAN, Iran — Thursday was a public holiday in Iran and most of the population had the day off work, but Iranians were discouraged from tuning in to Barack Obama’s appeal from Cairo — if indeed they could.
The holiday in question was, after all, a day of mourning to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The American president's speech didn’t earn a mention on state-owned public airwaves, dominated as they were during the course of the day by documentaries on Khomeini.
Rather than respond to Obama’s call for cross-cultural cooperation, the Iranian government offered homage to the Islamic Republic’s founding father.
Characteristically, the Iranian leadership didn't hold back from the kind of revolutionary rhetoric that has characterized Iran's estrangement from the West for the past 30 years.
Speaking before thousands of black-clad pilgrims at Khomeini’s public memorial in Tehran, the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said: “The nations in the region hate the United States from the bottom of their hearts because they have seen violence, military intervention and discrimination."
Meantime, and regardless of the fact that the “death to America” chant is still de rigueur at Friday prayers across the country, Iran’s political class has evidently been in search of a more nuanced vocabulary with which to address the United States. This is especially true since the combatative George W. Bush was replaced by the conciliatory Barack Obama, who campaigned on the promise to establish diplomatic ties with Iran.
Publicly, Iranian policymakers have rebuffed Obama’s entreaties, including a video greeting on the Iranian New Year to the Iranian people and government. Tehran says that it will wait until Obama translates his rhetorical promises of “change” into concrete policy.
But Iranians are increasingly seeing cracks in that line of reasoning. In a recent Iranian public television broadcast, Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University, ridiculed the government line. "Even if Obama had registered Planet Earth in its entirety in our name, we in Iran would still be saying: 'There has been no change,'" Zibakalam said.
Politics aside, Obama has clearly struck a chord with many Iranians. Some cite his intelligence, some his charisma and good looks.
Others have more fanciful reasons for their support of the new president. “You can tell he’s a Muslim, that he was raised as a Muslim,” said Masoud Aghamehdi, an accountant. “He doesn’t say it, but that’s why he understands the region’s problems.”
One rumor circulating Tehran has it that Obama’s Muslim lineage traces back to emigrants from southern Iran to the African continent. The idea of a direct link the American head of state has resonance among the nationalistic Iranians.
But Iranians interested in hearing from the American president had to rely on satellite dishes — illegal in Iran, but in no short supply in Tehran and among the well-to-do in other parts of the country — to access broadcasts from the BBC, CNN or Al Jazeera.
One Iranian journalist who watched the speech was impressed. “He said that we have the right to nuclear energy,” she said. “That is what everyone in Iran has always wanted and no one here was prepared to give up. Very wise of him. We need to respond to this.”
The affinity many Iranians express, in private, for Obama matches an admiration for the United States that itself is nothing new. “We all grew up listening to American music, watching American movies,” said Layla Hamid, a student at Tehran University. “And our parents want to send us to American universities."
Another student, Kamiar Day, said: “We want to maintain our independence. But, there’s no reason not to have stronger connections with all countries.”
And with rapprochement seemingly a real possibility under the Obama administration, relations with the West have increasingly emerged as a hot issue in the impending Iranian presidential election, scheduled for June 12. In particular, incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been put on the defensive.
Having spent the past three years displaying his talent for domestic populism and international provocation, he’s now making awkward attempts at statesmanship. In response to Obama’s offer of direct negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, Ahmadinejad has suggested that he arrange to debate the American president at the United Nations on “the roots of the world’s problems.”
But, Ahmadinejad’s record has left him open to charges that his hardline course has failed to pursue Iranian interests. During a televised debate on Wednesday night, Ahmadinejad’s main challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, did not spare any criticism. Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy, Mousavi said, suffered from “adventurism, instability, exhibitionism and extremism.”
Another candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, a cleric aligned with the reformist camp, has made more explicit attempts to exploit Obama’s popularity. Wherever Karroubi speaks, one word, written in English and familiar from the American campaign trail, adorns his podium: “Change.”