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Obama victory elicits mixed signals in Iran

Some analysts say U.S. outcome may set back Tehran's hard-liners.

November 06, 2008|Borzou Daragahi | Daragahi is a Times staff writer.

BEIRUT — Instead of extending an olive branch to President-elect Barack Obama, who says he is open to talks with Tehran, Iranian military officials Wednesday delivered what could be interpreted as a sobering message to America.

Leaders of the armed forces issued a notice warning U.S. forces that any violation of Iranian airspace would be met with force.

"It has been observed that helicopters of the U.S. army were flying a short distance from the Iran-Iraq border," said a statement issued by Iran's military headquarters. "Iran's armed forces will forcefully respond to any attempts to violate the Islamic Republic of Iran's airspace."

The notice probably stemmed from fears that U.S. commandos might stage an operation in Iran like the recent American incursion into Syria. But it also represents what some analysts consider a desire by hard-line political factions in Tehran to continue the standoff between the two countries even as Obama may represent a chance for diplomacy.

"The radicals aren't happy about Obama's victory," said Saeed Leylaz, a Tehran analyst and newspaper editor often critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government. "To the radicals this change is not to their advantage."

With its ambitions of becoming a regional superpower and its drive toward mastering sensitive nuclear technology, Iran stands as one of the thorniest foreign policy issues Obama will face. Its byzantine domestic political squabbles often determine the tone and direction of its foreign affairs.

Iranian officials cautiously welcomed Obama's election as a repudiation of the Bush administration.

"The American people have to change their policies in order to get rid of the quagmire made by President Bush for them," Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, a senior advisor to supreme leader Ali Khamenei, said in comments quoted by the official Islamic Republic News Agency. "The next U.S. president should abandon the course taken by President Bush so far."

Obama has advocated negotiations as a way to address stark disagreements between Tehran and Washington, and Vice President-elect Joe Biden once threatened to push for impeachment of Bush if he decided to bomb Iran. Still, Tehran feels the Obama team represents potential new threats to Iran, analysts say.

Bush's polarizing persona may have alienated some countries that do business with Iran, but a unifying figure like Obama might help convince fence-sitters such as India, China, Turkey, Malaysia and Russia to synchronize their Tehran policies with the U.S.

"There is the thought that Obama could be as dangerous as Bush, but in a different way," said Abolfazl Amouei, a conservative-leaning political scientist at Imam Sadeq University in Tehran. "In Iran, Democrats don't have a good reputation. They were the first ones who started the sanctions under President Clinton."

Many Iranians are eager to see how Obama moves forward from comments during the campaign indicating that he would meet unconditionally with Iranian leaders and would defend Israel at all costs.

"As time has gone by, Obama has begun to sound more and more like [former Republican candidate John] McCain and the rhetoric of demonization has increased during the campaign," said Mohammed Marandi, head of the North American studies department at the University of Tehran. "We have to really see if Obama is truly serious about change or if the change is a tactic or a change in attitude."

Analysts predict that a debate will unfold within Iran's elite over whether the Islamic Republic or the United States should make the first move in any post-Bush dialogue.

Some point to the injustices allegedly committed by the U.S. against Iran, such as the 1953 overthrow of the democratically elected government, as reasons why America should make the first move. But others describe Obama as a transformational figure of global significance, with more than a few likening him to civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.

Obama's victory could take the wind out of the sails of hard-liners who have consolidated their power on the threat of an American attack and weekly chants of "Death to America!" at Friday prayers. Leylaz predicted that outreach by the Obama administration might spell the end of Ahmadinejad and usher in a more pragmatic government more amenable to compromise over Iran's nuclear program.

"The radicals will be weakened, because they have lost their partner in the United States," Leylaz said. "They cannot silence critics by saying we are under pressure by the United States if Mr. Obama starts direct negotiations."

In any case, it might be a tough sell to condemn a country whose leader's middle name is the same as that of the prophet Muhammad's grandson. Some in Iran entertain the theory that Obama, whose last name means "he's with us" in Persian, is partially descended from Iranians who migrated to East Africa centuries ago.

"There's an excitement," said Ahmad Bakhshayesh-Ardestani, a political scientist. "An individual who's of mixed race and who knows the Muslim world has become president of the U.S. He's different. It's inspiring."

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daragahi@latimes.com

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