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Why many Iranians are feeling the Bern

Many Iranians and Iranian-Americans are still pulling for US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, whose "real" image has "managed to change the general narrative about the United States."

Foad Shams is an Iranian journalist who supports US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and has written about him in the Iranian press. When asked what is it about the Democratic hopeful that interests him, Shams told Al-Monitor, “The image of an alternative America is the most attractive feature of the Sanders campaign. Sanders is an alternative voice. In fact, he has managed to change the general narrative about the United States. We Iranians have two different — but equally wrong — images in our heads regarding the United States.” Shams explained, “On the one hand, we have the image that is propagated by Iranian state television and other official media outlets inside Iran that depicts the United States as the absolute evil. The other image is the one propagated by Hollywood and some foreign media outlets that present America as heaven on earth and a place where everyone is happy.” He added, “However, the image that Sanders presents of the United States — its people and their demands — is real.”

Al-Monitor spoke about the upcoming US presidential election with an adviser to President Hassan Rouhani. He said on condition of anonymity, “[Hillary] Clinton is the candidate who has a real chance of getting elected. Sanders is unlikely to succeed. However, we have an old saying in Iran which goes, ‘If it does turn into doogh [an Iranian yogurt drink], it will be great!’” referring to an impossible scenario that can only be realized in a dream.

The Iranian presidential adviser added, “We are closely monitoring the presidential election in the United States. We have spent many sessions at research centers discussing the election and its possible outcomes with the experts. At this point, the administration is not planning to make any comments about any of the candidates, considering that we are still in the primaries. However, we have made our own predictions.” In regard to Sanders, the senior Iranian official told Al-Monitor that while Sanders is “of course a long shot … we had predicted that if he ever makes it to the White House, he could perhaps solve many of the problems between Iran and the United States the same way [President Barack] Obama has managed to solve some of the United States’ problems with Cuba, and that he could help tear down the wall of distrust in Iran-US relations that the supreme leader had talked about. His presidency could have been a historic opportunity for peace in the world.”

With regard to the Republican front-runner, the adviser said, “Compared to Clinton, [Donald] Trump is less problematic for Iran since he is for the most part an isolationist. Of course, Clinton has softened her tone on Iran during the past few weeks, something that we attribute to the news we have recently received regarding a few pragmatic advisers joining her campaign. Nonetheless, we believe that the nuclear deal might not have gone through if she had remained as secretary of state.”

Al-Monitor also spoke with Ali Abdi, an Iranian journalist residing in the United States who has volunteered for the Sanders campaign. He said, “Sanders’ and Trump’s campaigns have had the highest number of volunteers, mobilization and citizen engagement. As part of Sanders’ campaign, some of the most important things we've done was calling voters, going to the voters' doors and being active on social media networks.”

Abdi added, “Sanders is the best option for the Iranian-American community and the immigrant population in general. Sanders has a much better position toward Iran. He is less of a warmonger. He has been fighting for freedom and justice for the past 40 years. A person with such a vision can capture the interest of the immigrant population. It is this vision that engages Iranians’ interest and draws them toward Sanders.”

Among the Persian-language materials of the Sanders campaign is a poster with the slogan “A Future to Believe in” in Persian. Prior to the June 7 California Democratic primary, 3,000 Iranians residing in California were invited to a Facebook event encouraging them to vote for Sanders.

A poster designed for Persian-speaking supporters of Bernie Sanders was circulated online. (photo by Mohammad Reza Tayfeh)

Karim Yavari is a leftist student activist in Tehran who supports Sanders. Al-Monitor asked him whether he backs Sanders because he sees similarities between the Democratic hopeful and the head of Iran’s Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has been under house arrest since 2011, and whether the Sanders campaign is similar to the Green Movement.

“Sanders’ campaign managed to attract millions of youths in a period of only a few months. He shares many similarities with Mousavi, and therefore we are interested in his campaign and his plans. He talks about people’s social and economic demands in one of the most advanced societies in the world. His campaign showed the democratic, fresh and happy side of socialism as opposed to the angry, undemocratic and brutal images that have been associated with socialism in the past."

Al-Monitor asked Shams whether Sanders' supporters in Iran are realistic about what they can achieve.

“Of course I know that as an Iranian journalist living in Iran, my support for Bernie Sanders has no bearing on the outcome of the US election. We do not have any illusions in this regard. However, introducing Bernie Sanders to Iranian readers is certainly a positive thing to do. We cannot remain indifferent to a campaign that has sparked the interest of millions of Americans. There are Iranians who have US citizenship and thus the right to vote in the US election. Although their number is not large enough to have any meaningful impact on the election, they can play a more active role in Sanders’ campaign,” he said.

Shams also brought up the American Studies Program of Tehran University, saying, “At Tehran University, the United States’ political developments are being academically studied. In addition, there are research centers and institutes that are monitoring the election process. A while back, at a convention in Iran called 'Branding the Elections,' Donald Trump’s campaign model was studied.”

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