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Obama's "new" America and the question of Iran
November 13, 2008 Edition 42 Volume 6
President-elect Barack Obama has already achieved a rhetorical break with the arrogant, pompous and rather totalitarian language of the outgoing Bush administration. Thus, a new grammar is being presented in which the United States is re-invented as a particularly inclusive and exceptional place where "everything is possible". The credo "yes we can", already turned into a handy epithet pronouncing a newfound belief in the primordial goodness of the American cause, is not confined to bringing about transformations within US society of course. Obama has repeatedly emphasised the age-old Wilsonian idea that America is somehow predestined to change the whole world; outward movement is deeply inscribed in the language of this coming president. Indeed, in many ways Obama is much more internationalist in his speeches than Bush was before the terror unleashed on the United States in September 2001.
The renewed optimism induced by that rhetorical break is instrumental in curing the "Iraq syndrome" inhibiting the political elites of the country. This is the first step toward re-asserting America's lost moral/ideological authority in international affairs. Of course, the danger is that the "Obama factor" quells the humility forced upon the right wing after the disaster in Iraq and the ongoing strategic failures in Afghanistan. Once he finishes his project, the people of the non-western worlds may find themselves confronted with yet another American president destined to fashion a world order in total disregard of the realities on the ground. Does it matter if it is "one of them", an unquestionably talented orator who emerged out of their ranks, or the white master who wields the stick that beats them into submission?
In the meantime I do believe that there is the possibility of a rather different outcome. Iran will be the first challenge to assess if things would move toward that end. I have repeatedly emphasised that there is an opportunity for a cold peace between the country and the United States. I am cautiously optimistic because in the Islamic Republic there has emerged a consensus that diplomatic relations with the US are desirable. Despite the angry rhetoric and bellicose attitudes of some Iranian neo-conservatives, which are reciprocated with equal venom by their US counterparts, there is an emergent understanding that Iran can accommodate the "US factor" in international affairs diplomatically, without compromising the Islamic Republic's long-term strategic interests.
By all standards of rhetorical capability and diplomatic intelligence, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad appears to be an unlikely interlocutor in any Iranian-American rapprochement. And yet, he became the first Iranian leader to officially congratulate a US president-elect, a gesture acknowledged by Obama at a news conference last Friday. Of course, when the reformist former President Mohammad Khatami talked about dialogue and detente with the US in the late 1990s, he was castigated by the Iranian right-wing and ferociously blamed for sacrificing Iran's revolutionary ideals. There have been no such complaints about Ahmadinezhad's far more pro-active overtures to the United States. This is partially because Obama's cautious rhetoric has set the stage for a new opening in relations between the two countries and partially due to Ayatollah Khamenei's pre-election commitment that Iran would talk to any president apart from Bush.
It is not the job of intellectuals to prophesize or to become consultants of the state, and yet we are failing in our responsibility if we do not occasionally traverse avenues that accentuate the importance of dialogue and engagement, the promises of which are worth the effort. I think this hope that we may enter into a rather more peaceful era in world politics, is why many Europeans, Arabs, Muslims, Iranians, Africans, Cubans, Venezuelans, Bolivians, etc. give Obama the benefit of the doubt. There is a genuine belief that he may be able to move the Leviathan in a different direction.
But is this not yet another proof of arrogance and hubris to wish to improve the world by inventing a transcendental "ubermensch" and to lift him above reality by attributing to him superhuman powers? Does Obama represent a departure from the realm of American mythology and its engrained preponderance for self-aggrandizement or a new arrival of the same phenomenon? Today, many Americans are convinced that they have reestablished a firm ground from which they can depart once again to bring about massive changes within their country, and crucially, in the whole world. It appears to me that such attitudes of positivist exaltation have their own dangers, that they could lead to new monstrosities, especially in the "third worlds". So at this stage I am more hopeful than reassured that the Obama presidency will not be turned into yet another epitome of ferocity in international affairs. But at least there is this sense of hope.
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is a SOAS academic and author, most recently of "Iran in World Politics: the question of the Islamic Republic".