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October 24, 2012

Concern Grows Among Iranians After US Debate Remarks

by Negar Mortazavi, Matthew Hilburn

Iran was mentioned nearly 50 times during this week’s U.S. presidential debate, more than Afghanistan, Iraq and even China. The fact wasn’t lost on Iranians, many of whom watched the debate with interest and concern about the strained relations between the two countries.

Ali, an Iranian political activist, said he doesn’t feel good about what has been going on in the U.S. presidential season.

“I feel like [Iran] has replaced al-Qaeda in U.S. election campaigns,” said Ali, whose last name is withheld for safety reasons because of possible repercussions for speaking to the Voice of America. He said he thought the Iranian people have become the victims in the election.

Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate vying for the White House, called Iran “the greatest national security threat” facing the United States during Monday night’s debate in Florida. But he said “military action is the last resort,” only to be considered if “all of the other avenues ... had been tried to their full extent.”

Incumbent Barack Obama underscored his administration’s goals, saying “as long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.” He added that his administration has built strong international coalitions to stymie Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

International sanctions

“We then organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy. Their currency has dropped 80 percent. Their oil production has plunged to the lowest level since they were fighting a war with Iraq 20 years ago. So their economy is in a shambles,” Obama said.

This statement bothered Ali.

“The fact that [U.S. President Barack] Obama happily talks about the effect of sanctions on the value of Iranian rial, is not good. Basically, they don’t care what happens to the Iranian people,” the activist said.

Romney said he’d “toughen” sanctions by forbidding ships with Iranian oil from coming to U.S. ports. He also said he’d take steps to further isolate the regime by indicting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad under the Genocide Convention because, Romney said, his “words amount to genocide incitation.” The former Massachusetts state governor said he’d make sure Iranian diplomats were “ treated like the pariah they are around the world.”

Hesam, a young Tehrani said that he thought “sanctions seem to be the only thing that have affected the regime a little bit.” But, he added, the measures have had a bad effect on people.

“Life has become much harder and people are generally unhappy,” he wrote on Facebook. “I think we are paying for our own and our government’s mistakes.”

Jalil, a journalist in Iran, said  he sees little strategic difference between Obama and Romney’s positions toward Iran.

“Obama’s policies have been effective; the proof is Iran’s current economic conditions and the international coalition that Obama has created for sanctions against Iran,” he said. “But Romney doesn’t seem to have a coherent policy to confront Iran. Actually, he approved of Obama’s policies in this last debate.”

Green Movement

The U.S. presidential candidates also discussed Iran’s internal politics and the so-called Green Movement of 2009, when Iranians took to the streets to protest their own presidential election results. A deadly crackdown by Iranian forces cleared the streets.

Romney accused Obama of staying “silent” during the protests,  which he said was “an enormous mistake.” Obama said he had been “very clear about the murderous activities” being “contrary to international law and everything that civilized people stand for.”

Mohsen, a PhD student in politics, said he thought Romney “tried to take advantage of the Green Movement” and added that there was never a request from inside Iran for the U.S. to take action.

“Nobody expected Obama to intervene,” he said on Facebook, adding Iranians just “wanted Obama to clarify his position on the opposition and the government. And that was exactly what Obama did.”

Omid Safi, an Iranian professor in the U.S., wrote on Facebook: "Had the U.S. been more vocal in favor of the Green Movement, it would have delegitimized the movement by being seen as U.S.-sponsored."

Some Iranians think differently. Kamiar is one of them. He told VOA Iranian activists did not expect a U.S. intervention, but they wanted Obama to “be with them so they could celebrate the Iranian spring together.”

“Obama defended the Arab Spring, but he considered the Iranian Spring an internal issue,” Kamiar said.