- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 14, 2008

TEHRAN | With only nine months to go before their own presidential voting, Iranians appear far more interested in the U.S. election than in their own, and many think the U.S. choice will deeply affect Iran.

Iranian newspapers and even the state-run Iranian broadcasting network - which typically cover only negative stories in the United States, such as school shootings and broken families - are writing and broadcasting about the U.S. campaign nearly every day and competing to report the latest events.

The Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, has plenty of supporters here, but some Iranians prefer Republican Sen. John McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Nafiseh Esbati, a women’s rights activist who is working on her master’s degree in women’s studies at the University of Tehran, was a backer of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democrat, but has pivoted to Mrs. Palin.

“McCain’s choice of a female vice president demonstrates the power of women in the United States,” she said. “That makes me happy.”

However, Ahmad Tashakor, an activist in a student organization close to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said he likes the “rational and realistic attitude of Obama to Iran.”

“He has promised to have direct negotiations with the Iranian leadership without any preconditions. That´s good. It seems that American statesmen are awakening to understand the true way to behave to Iranians,” Mr. Tashakor said.

Even Mr. Ahmadinejad, who is expected to run for re-election in June, has had trouble hiding his interest in the U.S. campaign. He told reporters at the United Nations last month that he wanted to meet with both U.S. presidential candidates - an offer that neither Mr. McCain nor Mr. Obama accepted.

Six months ago, Mr. Ahmadinejad expressed doubts that a black man could be elected president of the United States. As the senator from Illinois has moved forward in the polls, however, Mr. Ahmadinejad has tried to appear balanced, stressing that the presidency is an American choice.

His caution is based in part on historical disappointments here about U.S. elections.

In 1980, while Iranian students were holding 52 Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini said President Carter would “take to his grave” his wish to be re-elected.

Furious at Mr. Carter for supporting the ousted Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and giving him refuge in the United States, Ayatollah Khomeini refused to release the U.S. hostages until after U.S. elections, which helped Ronald Reagan win the White House.

Afterward, Iranian leaders realized that Mr. Reagan was no kinder to Iran than the Carter administration and that U.S. policy toward Iran was largely bipartisan.

Still, Iranians have trouble hiding their interest in the U.S. vote.

Esmaeil Nazari, a high school math teacher, said he favors Mr. Obama because the candidate’s father was a Muslim.

“I know that he is not a Muslim and has been baptized, but his understanding of Islam and Muslims could help the American citizens to fear Muslims less,” Mr. Nazari said. “After 9/11, they think that all the Muslims are terrorists.”

Mr. Obama’s middle name, Hussein, also has special appeal for Iranians.

As predominantly Shi’ite Muslims, Iranians revere a religious figure known as the Imam Hussein - the grandson of the prophet Muhammad - as a hero who gave his life against an oppressive regime in a battle in Karbala, Iraq, in the seventh century.

The Democratic candidate also benefits from his last name, which sounds like “he is with us” in Farsi, while the second syllable of “McCain” is similar to the word for “rancor.”

Mr. McCain´s tough words about Iran, including his “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” takeoff on the Beach Boys song, “Barbara Ann,” has worried some Iranians but delighted others.

Shervin, 25 and an unemployed university graduate, said a McCain win might make things worse in Iran “and such pressures may result in some changes to my country. I´m not afraid of a U.S. attack on Iran.”

But Zahra Khosroshahi, a housekeeper in her 50s, said her main interest is “no more war, specifically against my nation.”

The U.S. vote could impact Iran’s presidential choices.

Rumors in the overseas Iranian media, widely followed here, suggest that if Mr. McCain wins, Iran’s supreme leader since Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989 - Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - will back Mr. Ahmadinejad for a second term.

If Mr. Obama is the next U.S. president, the rumors say, Ayatollah Khamenei will switch his support to Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister who is considered more pragmatic than Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Some analysts think Mr. Obama would be worse than Mr. McCain for Iran. Pasha Hani, a freelance writer for Iranian newspapers on international issues, warned that an Obama administration might improve U.S.-European ties, which could increase pressure on Iran over human rights and its nuclear program.

Hussein Daheshyar, a university professor and senior analyst in the reformist media here, agrees.

“Those who, based on their faulty Internet knowledge, wish Obama as the next U.S. president since they see him as a friend or a lesser enemy, would not benefit if he wins,” Mr. Daheshyar wrote recently in the reformist newspaper Kargozaran.

•Explore different election-night scenarios with our ‘Road to 270’ interactive electoral college map.

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