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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.

Others have more fanciful reasons for their support of the new president. “You can tell he’s a Muslim, that he was raised as a Muslim,” said Masoud Aghamehdi, an accountant. “He doesn’t say it, but that’s why he understands the region’s problems.”

One rumor circulating Tehran has it that Obama’s Muslim lineage traces back to emigrants from southern Iran to the African continent. The idea of a direct link the American head of state has resonance among the nationalistic Iranians.

But Iranians interested in hearing from the American president had to rely on satellite dishes — illegal in Iran, but in no short supply in Tehran and among the well-to-do in other parts of the country — to access broadcasts from the BBC, CNN or Al Jazeera.

One Iranian journalist who watched the speech was impressed. “He said that we have the right to nuclear energy,” she said. “That is what everyone in Iran has always wanted and no one here was prepared to give up. Very wise of him. We need to respond to this.”

The affinity many Iranians express, in private, for Obama matches an admiration for the United States that itself is nothing new. “We all grew up listening to American music, watching American movies,” said Layla Hamid, a student at Tehran University. “And our parents want to send us to American universities."

Another student, Kamiar Day, said: “We want to maintain our independence. But, there’s no reason not to have stronger connections with all countries.”

And with rapprochement seemingly a real possibility under the Obama administration, relations with the West have increasingly emerged as a hot issue in the impending Iranian presidential election, scheduled for June 12. In particular, incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been put on the defensive.

Having spent the past three years displaying his talent for domestic populism and international provocation, he’s now making awkward attempts at statesmanship. In response to Obama’s offer of direct negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, Ahmadinejad has suggested that he arrange to debate the American president at the United Nations on “the roots of the world’s problems.”

But, Ahmadinejad’s record has left him open to charges that his hardline course has failed to pursue Iranian interests. During a televised debate on Wednesday night, Ahmadinejad’s main challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, did not spare any criticism. Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy, Mousavi said, suffered from “adventurism, instability, exhibitionism and extremism.”

Another candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, a cleric aligned with the reformist camp, has made more explicit attempts to exploit Obama’s popularity. Wherever Karroubi speaks, one word, written in English and familiar from the American campaign trail, adorns his podium: “Change.”