Barack Hussein Obama has "proven the impossible," or so the saying goes among people who just two weeks ago were swearing up and down that "America will never elect a black man President."
Within foreign policy circles, the conventional wisdom of all the pundits is that people in the Middle East are so racist, or have such a low perception of the American people, that they will be "shocked and awed" by the selection of a black man to the point of capitulation and cooperation with America.
That is wishful thinking for the most part.
I don't think the race issue is or has ever been nearly as extraordinary a factor with the developing world as it is with the developed one. For decades now the rest of the world has seen many diverse faces representing America. From Michael Jordan and Olympic athletes, to American movie stars, to soldiers serving on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, to congressmen, secretaries of State and supreme court justices, the world knows about African Americans and their issues in America. To a teenage Iranian who has grown seeing these faces of America, Obama's election probably isn't that big a surprise.
It is mostly the Americans who surprised themselves, along with immigrant communities of all sorts who live in America. This is an unforgettable lesson for the established Iranian-American community, many of whom go to extraordinary lengths to present themselves as ordinary "white", "secular" and "modern" Americans having little in common with rural religious villagers back home. For years they thought that if they just adopt the "white" mannerism and white culture, (and implicity "white" friends, "white" attitudes and "white" skin itself) they can get ahead in life (like they did under the shah) partly because this was a white country.
This explains much of the generational clash among the Iranian diaspora, as well as "recent immigrant"/"established citizen" differences in attitudes and outlook in life and foreign policy.
Therefore, it is a mistake, in my opinion, to try to reduce Obama's achievement to a racial milestone that will have far reaching consequences internationally. President Obama will have an extraordinary opportunity to restore America's prestige and work toward peace in the world. But this is due to the rejection of Bush's policies, a party change in the White House and Obama's stated position on the Iraq war.
If America wants to win Iranian hearts and minds, they have to emphasize Obama's humble origins, not just his skin color. Personal achievement, pulling oneself up from modest economic means and championing the dispossessed have always been rewarded by the Iranian people (living in Iran). Those who are tempted to think that such values have died along with the Ayatollah Khomeini need only look at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
I saw first hand that in a competitive field of eight candidates who ran for Iranian presidency in 2005, Ahmadinejad was alone in presenting himself as humble, down to earth champion of the poor, while the rest of the candidates were tripping over themselves with pandering, flashy signs and sex appeal. A humble person knows how to instill pride and respect to people, a necessary ingredient to any cooperation.
These are the aspects of Barak Obama that make him attractive to Iranian populace and these are where he would get any authority to influence them should he choose to take America's policy toward Iran in a different direction.
Obama has already made extraordinary but logical statements. Saying he would sit down with Iranian leaders, for example may have played into the hands of the (now fringe) far-right wing during the elections, but it was probably a winner with the Iranian people. Here we have an admission by a major American candidate that Iranians are worthy of having direct and respectful discussions with.
According to the (now fringe) Iranian-American reactionaries and their like-minded neoconservative allies, it would be a mistake to "validate" the Iranian regime through the act of sitting down with them. But what these groups never realized was that quite apart from Iranian issues with their own government, their national pride demanded that they be treated seriously and equally in the international arena.
Another important clue to the change Obama will bring is his declaration on the night he won the election: "To those who seek peace and security: We support you." A simple logical sentence, that if followed with respect to Iran would simultaneously defend America's interests and validates Iranian need for security. It is in a nutshell a bargain (not necessarily "grand").
While this rhetoric is encouraging, the real decisions lie ahead. These are the decisions to be taken in 2009 which would be translated to change of facts on ground. These are decisions that will determine if America is truly moving away from Bush's destructive foreign policy, or simply continuing them under a different paradigm.
We shall wait and see.
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