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Obama? Not on Iran's airwaves

The U.S. president's speech clashed with a day of mourning for the late Ayatollah Khomeini. But many Iranians found a way to listen.

A cleric joins others attending a ceremony to mark the death of the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, held at a mosque in northern Tehran, June 3, 2009.

[Editor's note: For more GlobalPost coverage on Obama's speech to the Muslim world, read the ground truth from Cairo, the view from Dubai and Notebooks from elsewhere in the world.]

TEHRAN, Iran — Thursday was a public holiday in Iran and most of the population had the day off work, but Iranians were discouraged from tuning in to Barack Obama’s appeal from Cairo — if indeed they could.

The holiday in question was, after all, a day of mourning to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The American president's speech didn’t earn a mention on state-owned public airwaves, dominated as they were during the course of the day by documentaries on Khomeini.

Rather than respond to Obama’s call for cross-cultural cooperation, the Iranian government offered homage to the Islamic Republic’s founding father.

Characteristically, the Iranian leadership didn't hold back from the kind of revolutionary rhetoric that has characterized Iran's estrangement from the West for the past 30 years.

Speaking before thousands of black-clad pilgrims at Khomeini’s public memorial in Tehran, the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said: “The nations in the region hate the United States from the bottom of their hearts because they have seen violence, military intervention and discrimination."

Meantime, and regardless of the fact that the “death to America” chant is still de rigueur at Friday prayers across the country, Iran’s political class has evidently been in search of a more nuanced vocabulary with which to address the United States. This is especially true since the combatative George W. Bush was replaced by the conciliatory Barack Obama, who campaigned on the promise to establish diplomatic ties with Iran.

Publicly, Iranian policymakers have rebuffed Obama’s entreaties, including a video greeting on the Iranian New Year to the Iranian people and government. Tehran says that it will wait until Obama translates his rhetorical promises of “change” into concrete policy.

But Iranians are increasingly seeing cracks in that line of reasoning. In a recent Iranian public television broadcast, Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University, ridiculed the government line. "Even if Obama had registered Planet Earth in its entirety in our name, we in Iran would still be saying: 'There has been no change,'" Zibakalam said.

Politics aside, Obama has clearly struck a chord with many Iranians. Some cite his intelligence, some his charisma and good looks.