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IRAN: Did Obama effect help Iranian moderates?

June 12, 2009 |  7:11 am

Photo 547 

A relatively unknown and soft-spoken politician emerges from a pack of powerful leaders to pose a strong challenge against a sitting president who is one of the most well-known public figures in the world.

Among the many questions that will certainly arise around the surprisingly potent presidential candidacy of former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is whether the rise of a certain other president, Barack Obama, might have been a factor. 

Most Iranians say Obama’s speech last week in Cairo had absolutely zero effect on the elections. In fact, its timing may have raised suspicions that the U.S. was up to something. “The Iranians feel that the U.S. is always plotting,” said Ahmad Bakhshayeshi, a political scientist in Tehran.

But his speech aside, his very presence might have an effect on the outcome of the vote. Lowering tensions between the U.S. and Iran pulls the rugs out from under the feet of Iranian hardliners who need an external enemy to hush moderate voices. 

President George W. “Bush and Ahmadinejad were very good contemporaries,” Bakhshayeshi said. “Now that Obama has come, it’s time for Mousavi.” 

Among Mousavi supporters, many felt they could speak out in favor of better relations with America now that Obama is in power. 

Amir-Hossein Sharifi-Sistani, a 32-year-old account manager at a state-run pharmaceutical firm in Tehran said he’s not able to open letters of credit to buy certain raw materials from Europe and the U.S. because of sanctions. 

“Maybe Mousavi can change our situation and bring us out of this dead-end condition,” he said. 

Jalal Mohseni, a 52-year-old retired municipal worker, said he read excerpts of Obama’s speech in Iranian newspapers. "As far as I can understand, his speech was a message of peace, brotherhood and reconciliation,” he said. 

“It provides a good opportunity and Iran must respond positively.” He said he’ll vote for Mousavi because he is fed up with the government’s rhetoric. 

“We want a peaceful message,” he said. “We do not care about Israel. Israel is over there. Why must we bother ourselves?” 

Amir Eylaat, 35, a textile engineer said Obama’s attitude toward Muslims was a welcome change from Bush’s approach, which he called “humiliating.” 

If Mousavi is elected maybe he can breach the taboo of opening relations with the U.S. “Obama is so popular,” he said. “Plus, 30 years of disputes have exhausted everybody.” 

Still others said neither Obama’s presence nor his speech had any effect on Iran. 

Amir Khorram, a 26-year-old, mechanical engineer said Iran’s problems with the U.S. have nothing to do with the issue of Islam but of political differences. 

“If our Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sees any practical change by the Obama administration, any of Obama’s words would be music to our ears,” he said.

Read more on Iran's presidential election.

-- Borzou Daragahi in Tehran

Photo: Supporters of Mir-Hossein Mousavi rally on his behalf in Tehran. Credit: Delphine Minoui / For the Times