TWQ: Obama's Existential Challenge to Ahmadinejad - Spring 2009
April 1, 2009
Two countries, ‘‘both alike in dignity,’’ have for too long been the Capulets and Montagues of our days. Grudges like the 1979 hostage crisis and the U.S. role in the overthrow of the popular Mossadeq government in 1953, ill feelings stemming from the clerical regime’s nuclear program and help for organizations like Hezbollah, and the Bush administration’s ham-fisted policy of ‘‘regime change’’ have combined to make the Islamic Republic of Iran one of the most intractable challenges facing the United States.
For thirty years, Iran has partially defined itself in opposition to the United States. The founder of the clerical regime, Ayatollah Rouhollah Mousavi Khomeini, called the United States the ‘‘Great Satan’’ and accused it of leading a crusade against the Islamic world. His successor, Ali Khamenei, has continued to rely on this incendiary rhetoric. For the regime, then, the presidency of Barak Hussein Obama offers something of a challenge. Barak is Arabic for Grace of God, and Hussein conjures the most important Imam of Shi‘ism, the dominant branch of Islam in Iran, and its ultimate martyr. Obama’s multi-racial, multi-cultural roots also defy the regime’s stereotypical description of the United States as an incorrigible land of racism and inequity. Long before the November election, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated with his customary certitude that ‘‘they’’ will not allow a black man like Obama to become the president of the United States.
A hint of Iran’s problem with the paradox of an African-American president can be found in the regime’s behavior in the first days of the 1979 hostage crisis. Khomeini tried to sell the occupation of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran as a gesture against imperialism, but he believed that holding African-American embassy personnel as hostages would symbolically undermine the event’s anti-imperialist mis en scene. To obviate such a possibility, he quickly ordered the release of all ten African-American hostages. The election of an African-American child of an African e´migre´ will make it far more difficult for the mullahs in Tehran to successfully continue their ‘‘anti-Imperialist’’ narrative, or their claim that Christian White America is bent on a crusade against Islam.
Moreover, an Obama presidency is likely to drastically improve the political position of the United States in the world. Any improvement in the global stature of the United States would not only render the Islamic regime’s anti-Americanism less useful, but it would also make it harder for the regime to forge or maintain the kind of expedient anti-American alliances they have successfully made over the last 16 years. Through these tactical and new strategic alliances, particularly with China, India, and Russia, the regime has bought time to develop its nuclear program, and made it more difficult for Western powers to pass UN resolutions against Iran. In fact, an increase in tensions between the United States and Iran, hand in hand with rising global demand for oil and gas, afforded the regime oil revenues beyond its wildest dreams allowing it to ameliorate some of the more dire consequences of economic sanctions.
Circumstances, however, have changed drastically since the financial melt-down of last December. The 2008 U.S. general elections and the upcoming Iranian presidential election on June 12, 2009 have created a new dynamic and increased the potential for an improved U.S.—Iran relationship that would ultimately help break the bilateral diplomatic gridlock. The global economic recession and its incumbent decrease in the price of oil have increased this potential while simultaneously increasing tensions within what was already a fractured Iranian ruling elite. What lies ahead for the U.S.—Iran relationship as both countries potentially transition in two new administrations? Even if Ahmadinejad is reelected, his badly tarnished image, and the now evident vapidity of his economic populism will make him less giddy with the arrogant self-righteous bravura of his first term, and arrogant leaders filled with self-righteous piety make bad diplomatic interlocutors. What sort of policy should the Obama administration adopt toward Iran?