Obama's new approach, the intention to engage in a direct dialogue with the Iranian leaders, would be a more realistic attempt in dealing with a country that escapes every definition. However, there is one epithet that can be justifiably applied to this country at anytime: Iran has always been the land of "supreme leaders". The present time is no exception.
It is impossible to reach an understanding with the Iranian leaders without keeping an eye on how Iranians perceive Khamenei, their Supreme Leader. One of course cannot generalize about the attitudes of tens of millions of Iranians, but the following anecdote provides some perspective:
I met Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, when I was ten years old.
It happened in a chic mosque, equipped with a closed-circuit system and furnished with a sliding roof, during a religious ceremony.
At the entrance were several sherbet containers around which stood dozens of people holding plastic cups filled with lemonade. Not surprisingly, by the time we were frisked and let inside, I was drunk on lemonade.
We knew that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would be there that day. Inside, holding our shoes in plastic bags, we surveyed the carpet covered terrain to find a decent commanding view. The top left of the seating area, where a large guard in white civilian clothes sat, looked ideal. With his creasy nape and a spiraling wire hanging from his ear, the guard had a foreboding presence. I tried my best to keep him out of focus and enjoy the front row view.
Hundreds of people began pouring into the mosque. Soon the light projectors at our back were turned on. Though they were placed yards behind us, I imagined I could feel the intensity of their incandescent light passing through my backbones and burning my ribs.
A blue curtain divided the courtyard, where we sat, from the interiors of the mosque. So every time its smooth surface ruffled, everybody held his breath anticipating the entrance of Khamenei. The atmosphere was so tense.
Finally Khamenei entered. Suddenly all rose to their feet and started shouting slogans and chanting religious verses in a deafening and slightly frightening disharmony. But gradually as the initial excitement subsided, the cacophony unified into a few distinct phrases that rose above the others:
"O Free Leader! We're ready. We're ready."
"Friends with your friends, enemies with your enemies."
"Khomeini's spirit has come."
Now and then, you could hear someone sob in a big manly voice, hardly the most pleasing sound.
As the leader sat between some ayatollahs, the crowd calmed at last and we sat down. Finally.
But right then a young man from the crowd rose up.
"Let me talk to my beloved!" He shouted with a voice hoarse from crying too much. "Let me talk to my Master!"
Despite his emphatic pleas to be heard, I really cannot recall what the affectionate heckler said that day after all. But I do remember my father's reaction to it. In Farsi there's no synonym for the word irony, but I definitely felt something like that when I noticed my father's tearful eyes as he made the following comment: "Great! Here we go again! Another cornball!"
As the ceremony resumed its usual course, I found ample time to survey Khamenei's features. He looked so radiant. Actually many believe there is a spiritual aura surrounding him. But back then with those projectors at my back I was not very sure about that. He seemed simply to reflect the light thrown at him.
I saw his walking stick lying in front of him on the carpet. Then I noticed his disabled right arm: a trophy of the upheavals of the 1980s, when bombs and terrors used to sweep the country.
Despite all these ruminations inside and those clamorous loudspeakers out, nature's voice managed to reassert its sovereignty over me. It was high time I paid the price of having drunk too much lemonade.
I had to get out.
However, there were so many people crammed in the courtyard that the only way for me to move outside was to use their limbs as stepping stones. During my clumsy retreat to the outside world, I don't think my feet ever touched the ground as I traversed a sprawling mass of humanity.
Later in the evening, the state-run TV broadcast a few minutes of the ceremony we had attended. I caught a glimpse of my father sitting behind the foreboding man in white, staring sideways at the supreme leader. But there was no trace of me.
I was disappointed. Not simply because I did not make the telecast, but because I had found the supreme leader too much like a man. In Iran, the man's iconic image is plastered everywhere. Book covers, posters, murals, buses, classrooms, your father's wallet, your aunt's key chain etc. - all are places where the man's visage offers a stark reminder of where you live and who runs the place.
The immediate experience of seeing such an unearthly omnipresent person walk on earth was bound to disappoint. Alas, I cannot know how many of my fellow young Iranians have had their own such moments of revelation -- or whether Obama will be similarly disillusioned if and when he comes to face with Khamenei.