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Democracy in Iran: Change Begins at the Ballot Box

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America is at its best when it leads by example. This will be particularly important as the U.S. administration strives to fashion a new policy towards Iran. President Obama has made a very public offer to the Islamic Republic and while their response so far is not encouraging, it was not altogether unexpected by those who know Iran. There is simply too much at stake, however, to rely on the same tired old prescriptions, and while it will not be easy we will need to persevere and approach this effort with a new level of nuance and creativity.

There are two distinct audiences in Iran, the primary being the regime and its hard line supporters, led by the Supreme Leader. The fact is that nothing will change between the U.S. and Iran without the acquiescence of Iran's Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. For this to happen, the administration will need to walk the fine line between addressing the strategic interests of the U.S. and its allies while also acknowledging issues that matter most to those in charge in Iran. The Supreme Leader will also need to be convinced that the ultimate goal of the west is not simply to roll back the Islamic revolution in Iran. The latter in particular may in the end prove impossible but the effort must nonetheless be made for there to be any chance of success. While there are a multitude of tactical matters to be considered, it will be critical that the U.S.'s overall strategic approach be based on a new paradigm; one that does not predicate success solely on the eventual capitulation of Iran to the demands of the west. The hard truth is that notwithstanding the serious economic challenges Iran is facing, its leadership is not currently in a position where they have no other option than to bow to the demands of others. This could change, but thirty years of waiting for just such a situation, during which the Islamic republic has proven itself to be tremendously resilient, would indicate it likely will not anytime soon. To pretend otherwise is to ignore the facts and doom any effort to eventual failure.

In the meantime, the signals coming out of Iran, while certainly conflicting, are quite interesting. Many of the statements emanating from Tehran certainly tend to be confrontational and at times harsh, primarily in response to what the Iranians view as continued confrontational statements and actions from the U.S. and its allies. No one, however, including the Supreme Leader has yet voiced a definitive no to the possibility of either dialogue or improved relations with the U.S. Even the latest very critical statements from Khamenei, presented during the Tehran hosted Palestinian conference - and even more recently in his Norooz message to the Iranian nation - do not expressly preclude engagement. Instead, the predominant message, across the board - including from the reformist camp - emphasizes an Iranian perception that the actions of the Obama administration have yet to match its rhetoric of change. Another important development that we cannot ignore is that Iran's leadership has chosen to cast America very much in the role of supplicant, thereby placing the U.S. in the unenviable position of making the first move, a quintessential Iranian negotiating tactic. Meanwhile, Iran watches and waits, taking the very Iranian tack of "Naaz Mikonand" (ناز می کند), or, "playing hard to get."

As the U.S. administration continues to study its options, among these must be actions that clearly demonstrate that a change in tone is capable of leading to a substantive change in both attitude and approach. The administration's invitation to Iran to attend the recent "Afghanistan Conference" is a good case in point. Selective relaxation of the current sanctions regime obviously offers additional options. As the senior partner in this diplomatic dance, however, the U.S. needs to take additional actions, with no expectation of an immediate quid pro quo, in order to demonstrate good faith and build confidence with its decidedly skittish junior partner.

At the same time, we should not forget there is yet another very important audience in Iran that we cannot afford to ignore; its people. In addressing the people of Iran, there are very few actions that the U.S. government can take that will not backfire. To single out any individual risks causing them to become a target of, at best, regime ire and at worst, the regime's internal security services. To address any particular issue risks making it a cause celebre by which the hard liners can point to yet another case of internal interference by the "global arrogance."

There is one issue, however, that the U.S. government - all the way up to the President - can address openly, with virtually no chance for blowback, TO GET OUT THE VOTE. Iranians are proud of the democratic system in Iran. While certainly not "free and fair" as we understand the democratic process, largely as a result of the non-transparent candidate vetting process employed by the regime, the system in place is far and away one of the more democratic in the region. And granted, the overarching authority of the Supreme Leader largely neutralizes the "power of the people" on many issues of the highest import. Notwithstanding these limitations, the regime - including the Supreme Leader - seeks to acknowledge the will of the people on many issues, or at least pretends to. To do otherwise risks losing popular support altogether and abandoning any pretense of democracy, no matter how tenuous. As a regime that came from the streets - one that expends an enormous amount of energy and resources on catering to, and/or controlling its varied constituencies - Iranian leaders simply cannot afford to openly thwart the wishes of its people. The bad news is that apathy among voters is high. This serves to benefit the more hard line elements and threatens to allow a more hard line minority in Iran to continue to thwart the will of the apparently more moderate majority. The good news is that the promise of change through democracy, no matter how limited, offers an opportunity to promote common cause with America, and particularly with our newly elected President.

In short, the U.S. administration should encourage all Iranians, in the strongest possible terms, to vote in the upcoming Iranian Presidential election as a celebration of the Democratic traditions that both nations share. No candidate should be singled out, nor any particular issue highlighted or supported. A simple message of "a responsibility to vote" will suffice. This will serve several purposes. First, it will emphasize an important, shared value with which many in Iran will be able to identify. In addition, higher voter turnout, more than almost any other means, is likely to result in the election of more moderate candidates by causing the regime to think twice about manipulating the vote count as it appears to have done in recent elections. High voter turnout should also serve notice to Iran's leadership that the people of Iran are engaged, watching and that they expect those in positions of leadership, both elected and non-elected, to serve all of their needs. Whether Iran's leadership responds is certainly questionable, and perhaps doubtful, but they will most certainly be placed on notice and will be mindful of the message this sends. Lastly, this is a message the regime will be hard pressed to reject or spin as they can hardly object to anyone, even the "Great Satan" encouraging the people of Iran to exercise their right to vote.

While this may be perceived as naïve by some, it is one of the few messages that stands a chance of reaching the broadest possible audience in Iran - both the Iranian people and its leadership. This will also allow America to once again lead by example, as a Nation that has itself just used the power of the ballot box to assert the will of the people and bring about change.