Iran will hold her presidential elections on June 12. Even though the campaigns have not officially begun, the elections are already the most important subject of political discussions in Iran, and in the Iranian community in the diaspora. But, Iranians are not the only ones who have a stake in the outcome of the elections. The West, and in particular the United States, also has great stake in the outcome. This calls for rethinking of the U.S. policy towards Iran, both in the short and long terms.
Let me first be clear about the limits of power that Iran's president has. According to Iran's constitution, the president is the number two official in the country. The highest authority of the land is the Supreme Leader, who is currently Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei whose power vastly exceeds that of the president. In addition, all the candidates for most elections are vetted by the Guardian Council, a constitutional body that supervises most elections in Iran. Thus, elections in Iran are usually neither democratic, nor fair. But, they are usually competitive. The outcomes are often unpredictable, which makes the elections meaningful. They also have meaningful consequences for Iran.
But, this is not to say that Iran's president does not have any power. In addition to the fact that the country is run by the president, all we need to do is recalling Iran's foreign policy from 1997-2005, when Mohammad Khatami, a reformist cleric, was Iran's president, and compare it with that of Iran's current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad , a Muslim fundamentalist with a Ph.D. in civil engineering.
Khatami pursued détente with the West. During his two terms as Iran's president, the relations with the West, and in particular with the European Union, greatly improved. He was one of the first heads of state to condemn the terrorist attacks of September 11, and proposed the dialogue of civilizations, as opposed to Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations. He also improved Iran's relations with her neighbors and other nations in the Middle East. When the U.S. attacked Afghanistan in 2001 in order to overthrow the Taliban, Khatami's administration provided crucial help to the U.S. by opening Iran's airspace to the U.S. aircrafts, and providing intelligence on the Taliban. Iran's main ally in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance, was actually the first to enter Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, and overthrew the Taliban regime. Iran played an indispensable role in the formation of the national unity government that emerged after the Taliban regime was overthrown. Next to the U.S., Iran also made the largest pledge of aid to the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
Khatami's administration negotiated a temporary suspension of Iran's uranium enrichment program, signed the Additional Protocol of Iran's Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and agreed to carry out its provisions voluntarily until the Iranian parliament ratified the Agreement. But, since the European Union reneged on its promise to Iran on a comprehensive proposal that would address both Iran's aspirations for nuclear technology and her legal rights under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and the West's concerns over Iran's nuclear program, Iran suspended the Agreement in February 2006.
Khatami's first term also witnessed the development of a relatively free press in Iran, the establishment of many non-governmental organizations, and some important elements of a civil society. Iran's economy also improved greatly during the Khatami era. Unfortunately, Iran's Constitutions bars the president from seeking a third consecutive term and, therefore, Khatami had to step down in August 2005. Polls have consistently indicated that he is still the most popular politician in Iran.
Contrast this with what Ahmadinejad has done in the international arena. His denial of the Holocaust and rhetoric about Israel (even though what he had actually said was mistranslated and misinterpreted), and his confrontational and aggressive foreign policy have contributed greatly to Iran's isolation in the international arena. Although, as I have explained in a separate article, there is no legal basis for sending Iran's nuclear dossier to the United Nations Security Council, Ahmadinejad's rhetoric and aggressive policy created enough concerns that enabled the U.S. and her European allies to convince others to agree to sending the dossier to the UNSC.
Ahmadinejad's administration has suppressed internal dissent, and greatly limited freedom of expression. His government has grossly mismanaged Iran's economy. Despite earning nearly $300 billion from exporting oil over the past 3 years, unemployment and inflation are at record levels. Corruption has also increased dramatically, to the point that even Ahmadinejad's supporters have been protesting the miserable state of the economy, with many of them deserting him. Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a well-known reformist Iranian journalist, has likened Ahmadinejad to a daily worker who may work hard, but believes in no planning.
On Sunday Khatami announced that he will run in the upcoming elections. That will polarize the elections. Although the hardliners have been bickering among themselves about what to do with Ahmadinejad, now that Khatami has announced his intentions, they will likely support Ahmadinejad for a second term. Therefore, Iranians will have two fundamentally different candidates to vote for: Khatami, an enlightened, moderate, reformist cleric with honesty and integrity, and international respect and prestige, vs. a fundamentalist hardliner that has ruined Iran's economy, suppressed freedom, and tarnished Iran's international reputation.
The West should avoid interfering in Iran's internal affairs. Iran's elections are a purely internal matter for the Iranians. It is up to them to decide whom they want to vote for. The West, and in particular the U.S., can, however, avoid doing anything over the next 4 months that may help Ahmadinejad to win. He has to win the elections on his own record. What should the U.S. avoid doing over the next 4 months?
The U.S.-Iran relations are as thorny an issue in Iran as in the United States. President Obama has wisely said repeatedly that his administration wants to negotiate with Iran without any preconditions. Khatami tried to improve the relations between the two nations, but the hardliners blocked his attempts. At the same time, polls indicate consistently that at least 75% of Iranians support re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the U.S. The hardliners are aware of this fact. It is not that they oppose a rapprochement with the U.S., but that they want to achieve it themselves, because they consider it the "grand prize" of the Iranian politics.
Thus, unless an unexpected new issue arises that would require immediate negotiations between the two countries, the Obama administration should put off any serious negotiations with Iran until after Iran's elections. Any serious negotiations over the next four months that improves the situation between Iran and the U.S. will be beneficial to Ahmadinejad. At the same time, the administration should not push for any new round of UNSC-approved sanctions against Iran because, aside from serious doubts about the legality of such sanctions (which I have explained in another article), the hardliners will use them to incite Iranian nationalism, which is very fierce. Four months are not going to make a dramatic difference in what is going between Iran and the U.S. Iran's nuclear program is under full inspection and safeguards of the IAEA. But, the re-election of Ahmadinejad will make a dramatic difference to the chances of Iran playing a more positive role in the region. We should avoid doing anything to help it happen.