Argument

More Than Words

Even for Barack Obama, winning over the Muslim world is going to take far more than just well-received interviews and eloquent speeches.

Just hours after U.S. President Barack Obama's interview Monday with Al Arabiya television, the English-language headlines on the Web and in print were effusive. Obama was promising to resolve the Middle East conflict and be a good listener to Arab and Muslim grievances. Muslim-American organizations and bloggers -- always looking for signs of their importance in politics and society -- wasted no time proclaiming that Obama, who seemed to ignore them on the campaign trail, was reaching out, giving their concerns the attention and respect they feel they deserve.

But people in the Middle East, and particularly Iran, are not swayed by skilled oration and flowery language. If it were poetry Iranians were really looking for, they could always turn to Rumi or Omar Khayyam.

As far as Iranians are concerned, they will believe change has come to Washington when the U.S. government offers them not just a chance for dialogue, but as many carrots as sticks. Hours after Obama's interview, the Iranian government was quick to introduce a bit of skepticism into the world's reaction. Referring to the Al Arabiya interview, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, We welcome change, but on condition that change is fundamental and on the right track. When they say We want to make changes,' change can happen in two ways. First is a fundamental and effective change. ... The second ... is a change of tactics.

Iranian newspapers across the political spectrum also expressed skepticism. One newspaper, owned by a close advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Obama an advocate of the Zionist entity, which is the terminology Iran uses to refer to Israel. His [cabinet] appointments are surprising to everyone who thought he would bring change, said a news analysis in the newspaper Entekhab.

Other Iranian commentators voiced doubt over whether the president's remarks and those of Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, about engaging Iran will ever lead to negotiations. Are we able to tell if the lobby [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] will tie Obama's hands or if we can heat up the ovens of expectations that Iran and the U.S. will have a rapprochement? asked one pundit.

There is little question that many factions within the regime want to reconcile with Washington. And although this new Obama script might be kinder, gentler, even self-deprecating, Iranians have seen this American movie before.

Arabs, too, have their doubts. After all, they've watched Obama remain virtually silent in recent weeks as Israel carried out a relentless and asymmetrical war on Palestinians in Gaza. His repetitive statement that there could only be one president at a time was met with resentment. History has never been on their side: They are familiar with a half century of U.S. policy in the Middle East that has been less than evenhanded and has never dramatically changed from one president to the next.

So although some teary-eyed Americans might be gushing over Obama's hopeful pronouncements with relief that his attitude and tone reflect a clear shift from the Bush administration, Middle Easterners are no doubt waiting for action to follow words.

Not in public, but in private, they are asking the tough questions: Will U.S. policy fundamentally change, given Washington's relationship with Israel? What about the other parts of Obama's Al Arabiya interview in which he called Israel a strong ally of the United States?

Is he going to reserve seats at the peace table for Hamas and Hezbollah, a necessary step for real progress? And, what does his reference to leaders who cling to power through deceit and the silencing of dissent really mean? If, as he says, they are on the wrong side of history, is the United States going to cut off aid and demand free elections and an end to repression and human rights violations carried out by nearly every Arab regime? Or will he revert to business as usual, like all his predecessors have done?

If the Arab street protests across the region over Gaza -- which in number and rage were unprecedented -- prove anything, it is that Arab regimes are more vulnerable than ever to real dissent and upheaval. There are now opposition movements mobilizing people, such as laborers, members of the underclass, and a new generation of young activists, who in the past never cared about politics. Can the United States afford to further destabilize these regimes?

Arabs and Iranians are relieved to know that Obama is not an ideologue like his predecessor. But as much as he is a visionary, he is also a pragmatist. They worry that the weight of the foreign-policy establishment in Washington and the realities of geopolitics will crush his ambitions -- and theirs in the process.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

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