The Iranian view: 2 sides of the same coin

Spend any considerable amount of time in the Arab World, and you'll be amazed at how many locals talk as if they are experts on American politics, simply based upon what they see on state-run TV channels, with a bit of al-Jazeera influence for a varied perspective. Much like the American cable news junkies who love to show off their new vocabulary (Sunni, Shiite, Kurd) and dazzle friends at cocktail parties by explaining how "Iraq is really 3 separate countries for 3 different peoples." uh-huh.

In light of these amateur views, it was interesting to see reactions to the results of the recent mid-term Congressional elections from the Middle East angle. There seems to be a happy consensus in the region at Bush's proxy defeat. No surprise there. However, beyond this angst-driven factor, opinions diverge. For example, Sami Moubayed, a noted Syrian political analyst and historian, in his post-election piece quotes a Baathist longing for "The America of Jimmy Carter and the one of Bill Clinton."

We can read this 2 ways, and either is distasteful. First we can take the cynical view and suggest that the political class in countries like Syria are only interested in putting on a dog-and-pony show to impress what they perceive to be naive American Presidents like Carter and Clinton, while they continue to work a regional agenda subversive to American interests. Alternatively, we can take the optimistic view that they really do want to see the Peace Process advance, and feel that they are better off with the engaging, perpetual-photo-op style of Clinton.

While I understand the frustration with Bush's policies and lack of engagement, to translate that into nostalgia for the "good old days" of Clinton's failed and flawed peacemaking efforts demonstrates a staggering lack of political sophistication.

Curiously, however, the enigmatic Iranians (who are not Arabs, remember) seem to have taken a much more skeptical view than the pining Baathist quoted by Moubayed. As evidence, I asked my "savvy Iranian source" (who earlier explained to us why President Ahmadinejad never wears a tie) for his view. His entire analysis is quoted below, but the 2 most thought-provoking quotes are: (continued...)

"They essentially view the Democrats and Republicans as two sides of the same coin" and

"After Iran helped the US extensively in Afghanistan and as a reward got branded as part of the Axis of Evil, it got a major wake-up call".

He writes:
I agree with you about the mistaken analysis by many in the Middle East that the Democrats are better for them than the Republicans. The main analysis coming from official and semi-official sources in Tehran was interesting however, in that it didn't cast this issue in this light (something they used to do a lot in the past). This I think is borne out of the fact that they have become thoroughly disillusioned with the US (as well as continuing to mistrust its intentions) and have lost hope in the potential of partisan US politics changing anything for the better for Iran. They essentially view the Democrats and Republicans as two sides of the same coin.

Following their inability to get anywhere with the Clinton Administration and being acutely aware of the problems they have with the Bush Administration, the Iranians seem to have concluded that it doesn't really matter anymore who is in power in the US (whether Congress or the White House). After the Republicans' defeat, they were quite happy, not because the Democrats won but because it was - as you mentioned - a referendum on Bush and the policies he had pursued over the past years. Even the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei highlighted that this electoral defeat marked the end of "Bush's neo-conservative dream" and was as such something that should be lauded.

Overall, the analysis I am getting from Tehran is that people (i.e. officials) are being very cautious to draw any conclusions about the future course of US policy. While they are happy about the growing pressure on the Bush Administration to engage in dialogue with Iran, they are under no illusion that a Democrat-controlled Congress will turn things around 180 degrees or put any clear pressure on Bush to change his ways. I think the main thing people are hoping for now is that there will be some more pressure on Bush and some resistance to a number of his policies to stop him (and VP Cheney's office) from pushing on with a hawkish agenda. There is also some hope that the increased pressures to engage in dialogue with Iran over Iraq may set the groundwork for more debate about wider-ranging issues in the future.

In this setting however, the Iranians don't want to give anything for free to the US anymore, something that was made clear by Iran's UN Ambassador Mohammad-Javad Zarif, when he had his discussions with James Baker as part of the ISG (Iraq Study Group) report research. After Iran helped the US extensively in Afghanistan and as a reward got branded as part of the Axis of Evil, it got a major wake-up call that if it is going to sit down with the US over any issue (whether it is Iraq, the nuclear program, or whatever else) there must be a clear gain involved for Iran.

So in sum, I think that although the Iranians are happy that the Republicans lost, they are not under any illusion that the Democrats will be any better and will continue seeking to maximise gains and minimise losses as they go along.