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November 6, 2008

Israel, Iran and Obama: the region reacts to U.S. election

The Iranian reaction to the election of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States seems to be overall positive so far, with MP’s such as Hamid Reza Haji Babai welcoming the victory “as an opportunity and test, with Iran now waiting for that change”. Government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, and President Ahmadinejad similarly echoed a hope for change in the direction of U.S. foreign policy. While Elham stated that “Iran hopes Obama changes America’s international image and avoids invading foreign countries.” Mottaki argued that “the election of Barack Obama… is a clear sign of the American people’s wish and desire for fundamental changes in America’s domestic and foreign policies.” Ahmadinejad issued a brief congratulatory note to Obama on his website; the first time an Iranian President has extended such a congratulatory letter to an American President in thirty years.

The reaction from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni was however more reserved. Ali Aghamohammadi, a close aide to Khamenei, said in a Reuters interview that a “change of political figures is not important by itself. What is more important is a change of American policy.” Simultaneously, the Iranian Armed Forces (which is under the Executive Command of the Supreme Leader) issued a stark warning to U.S. forces in Iraq that Tehran “would respond to any violation of Iranian airspace, a message analysts said seemed directed at the new U.S. president-elect more than neighboring American troops”

Meanwhile, Tel Aviv expressed nervousness about Obama’s plans for the Middle East. Having sent several “high-level messages to Washington in which it expressed its objections to the [Bush Administration’s] proposal to open an interests sections [in Tehran],” Israeli Foreign Minister (and Prime Minister candidate) Tzipi Livni said Thursday that “Obama shouldn’t talk to Iran just yet, warning that such dialogue could project weakness.” One should perhaps view Obama’s nomination of Rahm Emanuel – a high-ranking Democrat that flew to Israel to volunteer with the Israeli army in 1991 – as his Chief of Staff, as a maneuver aimed at calming Tel Aviv..

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