Iranians Hope Obama Lives Up to His Name

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Hasan Sarbakhshian / AP

An unidentified Iranian man wears a badge supporting President-elect Barack Obama in Tehran

So convinced was one friend that Barack Obama wouldn't win the U.S. election that she offered to wager money with anyone in the small crowd gathered around the TV at an election party in North Tehran on Tuesday. Despite Obama's clear lead in the polls, the woman was unconvinced. "How much do you want to bet?" she demanded. There were no takers willing to bet against some surprise turn of events that would deny Obama his expected victory. "Just like our Guardian Council handpicks the candidates [in Iran's elections], their Supreme Court chose Bush in 2000," another friend explained. "What makes you think they won't do it again?" (See pictures of the world reacting to Obama's win.)

The gathering dispersed at some point past midnight, although many among us stayed up all night on couches in front of our television screens. Then, at 7:30 a.m. Tehran time, the first text message arrived. "Ladies and Gentlemen, Obama has won!" The next went: "We need to celebrate!" And the next: "Salaam to Haj Agha Obama!" which cheekily bestowed the title of Mecca pilgrimage on Obama. (See pictures of Barack Obama's family tree.)

While Obama's Muslim background and middle name, Hussein, had provided fodder for his enemies in the U.S., here in Tehran, people refer to the Democrat endearingly as Hussein Agha or Mr. Hussein (in the Shi'ite Muslim tradition, Hussein is the name of the most beloved imam, the ultimate symbol of an underdog fighting against injustice).

The other elements of the President-elect's name are no less enchanting in these parts. Barack is a word of Semitic origin meaning "Blessing," and Obama, when written in Persian, transliterates into "He is with us." But it's not his name that has most Iranians I talked to on Wednesday elated by Obama's victory; it's the fact that they take the leader at his word and believe that he intends to end President Bush's policies of war and aggression.

"God willing, he shall bring the world an era of calm and peace," said Akram, a 52-year-old cleaner.

"Obama has said he'd talk to Iran," exclaimed an excited auto spare parts dealer, Mehran Yaghoubi, 40. "He's a peace-loving type. With him, Iran and the U.S. could finally sit down at a table and negotiate."

Some Iranian officials made cautiously optimistic remarks. The deputy speaker of parliament said, "Obama can change the defeated Bush policies and play an important role in the future relations between the U.S. and Asia and the Middle East." President Ahmadinejad's press adviser said he was hopeful that Obama would replace Bush's war policies with policies of peace. As a first step, Ali Akbar Javanfekr proposed, Obama needed to act on his promises of withdrawing troops from the Middle East.

But for the most part, Iranian government reaction was muted. Iran's conservative broadcast media reported on Obama's victory right away, but state television's most important evening news program highlighted people's discontent with the Republicans — and in particular, with Bush's post-9/11 policies — rather than focusing on the euphoria surrounding the person and candidacy of America's first black President.

Iran's former Vice President, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, expressed a widely accepted analysis among reformists, saying Iran's conservatives would have preferred a McCain victory, "because they benefit more from enmity with the U.S., which allows them to rally the Islamic world behind their policies and at the same time suppress dissent at home."

The state of relations between the U.S. and Iran could prove to be decisive in Iran's own presidential elections, coming in June 2009, when President Ahmadinejad's seat will be up for grabs. With Obama in charge, many now see real prospects for U.S.-Iran rapprochement, especially if a reformist or moderate President takes up the job here in June. "If [ former reformist President Mohammed] Khatami should decide to run," said a 33-year-old beautician, "it's a done deal." (Read "World Leaders React to Obama's Win.")

Still, many in Iran worry that a desire to demonstrate his toughness might prompt Obama to renege on his promises of dialogue with Iran.

"Obama is a more relaxed type, but there are remnants of the 'war on terror' talk in his speech too, so I'm not sure his foreign policy toward Iran will be that different," said 21-year-old chemistry student Saman Kavousi.

For now, though, most people in Tehran seemed relieved by Obama's victory, and hope that he will live up to his name, literally, and improve relations. "Soon I'll be visiting you in the U.S.," my grocery storekeeper declared with a huge grin. "As soon as there is an embassy here," he added, "I'll be the first to apply for a visa."

See pictures of the world reacting to Obama's win.

See pictures of Barack Obama's family tree.