Even at his inauguration, Obama was making subtle appeals to the rising dissent in Iran. Now, he's given his first presidential interview to an Arabic satellite TV network. Author and longtime Mideast correspondent Geraldine Brooks on the huge dividends that could come from finally opening a dialogue there.
Barack Obama has said he is prepared to talk to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At his inauguration, he did something better. He began to talk past him, directly to the Iranian people, who will elect their own new president later this year.
Obama’s middle name, Hussein, is familiar and recognizable to all Muslims, but for Iran’s Shiites it is especially beloved. It is the name of the martyred son of their venerated Imam Ali, invoked at their most sacred festivals, blazoned on religious gathering places, chanted by weeping mourners at the times of their personal loss. How confounding that the leader of the nation so long excoriated as the Great Satan should choose to be sworn into office using the name of a Shiite saint.
Iran’s hardliners are an increasingly thin encrustation atop a population who would welcome a thaw with the US.
Obama undoubtedly understands this. At a campaign fundraiser on a summer evening a year and a half ago, the then-underdog candidate Obama gave a short speech in answer to a question on Iran that showed him to be exquisitely aware of Iranian history and sensitivities. In it, he reflected that it might not be a bad thing, in talking to Iran, to acknowledge that America’s role in the coup that unseated the democratically elected leader Mossadegh in 1953 was a mistake, as was our clandestine support for Saddam Hussein while he bombed Iranian cities such as Khoramshah to rubble in 1988. If he were to make a similar speech to the Iranian people, there’s a chance that the Ahmadinejad era of terrorism-supporting, holocaust-denying, nuclear-proliferating fanaticism could soon be behind us.
Iran is a demographically young country and a culturally venerable one. Many of its people hunger for change but a painful history of being pushed around by great powers, including England, Russia and the US, has made them highly resistant to bullying. Nor do they appreciate characterizations such as George Bush’s unfortunate “axis of evil” remark, which belittles the proud and ancient Persia of Hafez, Cyrus and Rumi.
Dissent in today’s Iran is diverse and deep-seated. About seventy percent of Iranians have been born in the 30 years since the Islamic revolution. They don’t remember the shah or Khomeini or the US Embassy siege. Many listen to hip hop and heavy metal, watch illicit satellite TV and yearn for more personal freedoms. A significant number have risked jail and endured beatings in their quest for a more open society.
Among the older generation are former supporters of the Islamic revolution who have become disillusioned over time by the corrupting effects of power on a religious establishment that promised to represent the “shoeless ones” but has instead mismanaged a resource-rich economy at the expense of the poor. Others, who always despised the revolutionary regime and who could have emigrated, have stayed instead to fight for the soul of a culture they love. These are the people who continue, despite many official obstacles, to make remarkable films, run an opinionated and vigorous press, and ensure that universities still retain voices brave enough to teach above the drone of propaganda.
Today, even the religious establishment is deeply divided over the direction the country has taken. Iranian friends joke mordantly that the salon in which to find the most stimulating intellectual conversation these days is Evin prison, because you can meet all the best thinkers there, from western leaning student activists to distinguished ayatollahs.
Iran’s hardliners are an increasingly thin encrustation atop a population who would welcome a thaw with the US. But reform-seekers were battered by Bush’s careless rhetoric in 2002, which silenced those who would speak for reengagement with the US and energized the faction that hastened Ahmadinejad to power in 2005. Iran, almost alone in the Muslim Mideast, has actual and real elections with an enviably high voter turnout. Although a council of conservative clerics dictates who can run for office, most slates—from mayors and parliamentarians to the office of president of the Islamic republic—offer a meaningful choice between radicals and would-be reformers.
If we don’t hear much about all this it is probably because no US diplomats have set foot in Iran since the embassy siege in 1979. Instead, our presence there has been a handful of special forces apparently trying to do on the ground what is better and much more safely done at the negotiating table. The last thing we need is another unnecessary war. The best way for President Obama to minimize that risk and to hasten a more moderate Iran would be to use his eloquence to reach past the sclerotic and largely unloved Iranian regime, and talk to the Iranians, respectfully and directly. The rewards of success would be high: cooperation in Iraq, a dialing down of support for Hezbollah and Hamas, a reinvigorated nonproliferation policy, and ultimately, perhaps, a real friend in place of an implacable foe.
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Geraldine Brooks is an author and journalist who worked for The Sydney Morning Herald for three years as a writer with a special interest in environmental issues. Brooks has worked for The Wall Street Journal, where she covered crises in the the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2006 for her novel March, and her novel Year of Wonders is an international best seller. She is the author of Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence.