Talk of Obama in Tehran Taxis
Podcast: 1.7 MB, 7 mins 13 secs [Download audio file...]
Get the Flash Player to see this player.
As in many other cities throughout the world, people in Tehran get much of their news from radio programmes they hear in taxis. But unlike in other places, passengers here also receive lengthy and sometimes contradictory analyses of current affairs from taxi drivers and fellow passengers.One night in early November, as I returned home from my newspaper office in a taxi, the radio announcer reported that Barack Obama had defeated his Republican rival John McCain in the United States presidential race.
A passenger in the front seat – whom I assumed was a government employee, tired from his working day – said, “Obama will reach an agreement with the Islamic Republic, and the leaders of the Islamic Republic will have the support of the Americans. And then they’ll pay even less attention to their own people than they do now.”
As a Democrat, Obama gives Iranians hope that they will see a US policy of rapprochement towards their country.
However, the middle-aged man in the taxi reminded us that Iran’s Islamic revolution occurred on the watch of a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter. The passenger said he believed the 1979 revolution could not have happened without the support of the US government.
“The Americans stopped supporting the shah, and that was the moment of his downfall, despite all his glory,” said the passenger.
The debate on the US presidential election continued as I got out of the taxi.
The sanctions approved during the administration of US president Bill Clinton, a Democrat created very difficult economic conditions for the Iranian people. Sanctions deterred foreign companies and governments from doing business with Iran, and one result is that basic goods are often much more expensive than elsewhere.
Another consequence is that Iran’s aircraft fleet is now aging for lack of replacement. At the back of their mind, travellers always fear that their creaking plane will come down. According to reports from Iranian news agencies, 17 planes have crashed over the past 25 years, killing approximately 1,500 people.
As policies change with the Obama presidency, Iranians will not only expect peace of mind in their air travel. The growing middle class will also want the opportunity to buy luxury goods and enjoy western-style lifestyles.
Ordinary Iranians are not the only people hoping for new US policies toward the country. Even politicians in the Islamic Republic warmly welcome the possibility of change.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose overtly anti-Israeli stance has frustrated the Americans, was the first post-revolutionary Iranian president to congratulate a US counterpart on an election victory.
The day after the US elections, he wrote in an official letter to Obama, “I congratulate you on your overwhelming election victory.”
After almost 30 years of tensions between the US and Iranian governments, Ahmadinejad’s message was unprecedented.
Reactions to the gesture were mixed in Iran.
In his blog, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a deputy to former president Mohammad Khatami, called Ahmadinejad’s move a positive step forward.
Abtahi wrote, “When a policy of change in the US wins the votes of American citizens, Iran’s enemies are keen to convey a message to the world that Iran has not accepted this change and that [the US] should continue the same violent policies against Iran.
“The new US administration, perhaps under mounting pressure from those who support violence around the world, may not want Iran to welcome this change. [The US] can then continue to flag Iran as the main enemy and continue the blame game, allowing other problems to be covered up. Iran as a state and its people will become victims, and serve as the collateral damage for resolving America’s problems.”
However, Ali Motahhari, a conservative member of parliament, thought the Iranian president’s letter was ill-judged and premature. In a comment on the Tabnak News website, he said, “The president’s letter to Obama is a humiliation for the nation of Iran.”
While most Americans were surprised that a black president was elected, the American president’s colour was not much of an issue for average Iranians. Intellectuals, however, were happy that a member of an ethnic minority managed to reach the White House.
Banafsheh Amani, a student at the University of Tehran, said, “Forty or 50 years ago, black people in the US did not have the same rights as white people. Now, those same people who did not allow black people to enter public spaces have a black president. A black president in the White House, the house of the white! Just imagine a day when a woman becomes president in Iran. It won’t be in my lifetime, though.”
Both ordinary people and politicians see establishing relations with the US as the key to solving the country’s economic and political problems. Yet the US embassy in Iran is still occupied by the Revolutionary Guards, and any negotiations between Iran and the US are staggeringly slow.
People like Shahab, a student at the Open University of Tehran, expects the new US leader to work quickly.
“Obama is young and speaks of change. I think speaking of change in the US is different from talking about change in Iran,” said Shahab. “There, you cannot make empty promises. If Obama does not meet his pledges, the media will disgrace him.”
Most of Shahab’s friends and classmates have left Iran in the past years to study at American and European universities, and Shahab himself hopes to go to college in the US.
“If it takes the next four years for relations between Iran and the US to become friendly, the change will be too slow. I can’t wait,” he said.
Sara Shams is the pseudonym of a journalist in Tehran
This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.