Published on September 29th, 2013 | by Farideh Farhi1
Watching Obama in Tehran
by Farideh Farhi
I read about the Obama-Rouhani phone call in Farsnews, the hardline Iranian agency sometimes referred to as False News for the way it manages to distort certain events. (The official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) was apparently the first to report the call). Feeling skeptical, I turned to the New York Times where no mention of the event could be found as of yet. By the time I turned to CNN International — which, unlike its American counterpart, thinks its audience deserves better than frivolity and drama — Obama was already talking about Syria with the streaming headlines below his image confirming the phone call.
Obama’s words were not that different from his conciliatory speech at the UN General Assembly, but the news of the phone call between him and Hassan Rouhani has been met with silent awe by all and smiles from most, as documented here by Ali Reza Eshraghi.
I have been in Tehran since the beginning of this month, mostly absorbing conversations everywhere about what Rouhani can do, cannot do, and should do. But I have also heard plenty of talk and questions about Obama and his presumed lack of backbone.
Conversations usually begin with a question directed at me, the American political scientist in the room, about the rhymes and reasons of US policy on Iran. Of course, the questions are usually rhetorical since everyone in the room is more of a political “expert” than I am. This is Tehran, after all…
It usually takes a few seconds before the cacophonous discussion turns to the influence of Israel and Israeli lobbies in the US. “They would not allow it” is the repeated declaration and lament.
But Obama’s UN speech and phone call is raising eyebrows — even a momentary silence. It’s now time to watch and be cautiously optimistic about Obama’s ability for a pushback.
Meanwhile, the Iranian President is also impressing people with his presumed grit. I heard someone say yesterday that Rouhani probably would not have arranged to receive the phone call had the hardline press not acted so pleased with his refusal to shake Obama’s hand and not made fun of the reformist press for hoping for such an encounter.
Rouhani has accomplished more than what most expected from him both domestically and internationally. The release of some political prisoners; a returning degree of calm to economic expectations; the resurgence of a vibrant political press; the opening of the cultural arena; and public commitment to the resolution of the nuclear issue all confirm a re-direction at the top in response to public sensibilities. But few expected this re-direction to have palpable results so soon. The mood remains patient, but clearly pleased.
Yes, a shoe was thrown at Rouhani upon his return from New York City from a group of about 50 or so male demonstrators. But there were more supporters than detractors. It is also true that the intractable Hossein Shariatmadari of Kayhan has found 5 “lamentable” aspects of Rouhani’s trip and performance (including the way the President answered the Holocaust question, his reference to Israel instead of the Zionist regime, and of course, the phone call). But he has also had to defend himself against the charge of sounding more like Bibi Netanyahu than the Leader’s representative to the state-run newspaper.
No one expects Iranian opposition to the easing of tensions with the United States to go away. Over 4 million people voted for Saeed Jalili, Iran’s former nuclear negotiator deemed as the candidate who would continue Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s path. In fact, one of the anti-Rouhani demonstrators was identified as a senior worker on Jalili’s presidential campaign by a few websites. But there is also no denying that at least for now, the detractors are in the minority and mostly focused on the naïve nature of the current Rouhani policy and the presumed trust he may have in the possibility of real change.
They are preparing the ground for their “we told you so” six months from now. In the words of Mehdi Mohammadi, “then no one can say that not seeing the village chief is the problem. Now that they are sitting in front of the one they have called the village chief… If [the problem] is not resolved do we have the right to say that the problem lays elsewhere?”
This is why Obama is also intently watched in Iran. Most are hoping that he will sustain the unexpected fortitude he has shown while others are counting on his failure to overcome domestic and regional opposition to constructive bilateral talks to underwrite the ascent of their point of view that talking to the US is at best a pointless exercise.
Photo Credit: President Barack Obama talks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during a phone call in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)