Iran election opens door to U.S. talks
A wind of change is blowing through Iran, where hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faces an increasingly tough battle for re-election on Friday.
Whether or not Ahmadinejad fends off reformist Mirhossein Moussavi and two other candidates after a turbulent campaign, Iran is likely to be more open to talks with the United States on a possible “grand bargain” to end 30 years of hostility. Tehran will not give up its nuclear program, whoever wins. But it may be persuaded to stop short of testing or making a bomb.
There is a sense of deja vu about this election.
In 1997, a soft-spoken reformist, Mohammad Khatami, swept to a surprise landslide victory over the establishment candidate, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, on a tide of young people and women clamoring for greater freedom. But after his supporters won control of parliament, the conservative clerical establishment used unelected institutions in Iran’s complex power system to neutralize Khatami and block his liberal agenda.
There is, however, a crucial difference this time.
The United States, which had a policy of “dual containment” of Iran and Iraq at the time, never seized the opportunity of Khatami’s victory to open a dialogue. Now, U.S. President Barack Obama is waiting with an outstretched hand and has made crucial gestures by accepting the Islamic Republic by its name, offering talks without pre-conditions and admitting Washington’s role in ousting nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953.
Obama’s respectful overtures in his Cairo speech calling for a new start with the Muslim world have played into the Iranian campaign.
Moussavi, a graying architect who was prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has become the unlikely standard bearer of a mass movement for change. Tehran is teeming nightly with green-clad young men and women demonstrating joyously against the fundamentalist Ahmadinejad. It will be hard to get the genie back into the bottle even if the incumbent wins.
The president is only number two in the hierarchy after Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all foreign policy and national security decisions, especially on the nuclear program, and controls the elite Revolutionary Guards.
The president is constrained by other powerful bodies such as the conservative judiciary, the Guardian Council, which can veto legislation and bar election candidates on Islamic grounds, and the Expediency Council, which arbitrates differences among the institutions and is headed by influential ex-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Policymaking involves endless bargaining among multiple stakeholders, but the supreme leader is the ultimate arbiter. For example, he is believed to have vetoed a proposal by Iran’s nuclear negotiator in 2006 to accept a temporary freeze on expanding uranium enrichment in order to launch negotiations with major powers represented by the EU’s Javier Solana.
While both main candidates say the nuclear program is irreversible, Ahmadinejad has ruled out further negotiations while Moussavi has advocated fresh talks.
Khamenei has endorsed Ahmadinejad’s re-election bid, but he is sensitive to public opinion and must be deeply worried by rifts that have opened in the establishment during the campaign.
The fissures were dramatized when Rafsanjani accused Ahmadinejad of lying and demanded that the leader call the president to order for airing corruption allegations against Rafsanjani during a televised debate. The ex-president warned Khamenei there could be an explosive situation after the election if he did not “extinguish the fire”.
This does not mean that Iran is on the brink of another revolution. The Islamic system is deeply rooted and the security forces have shown in the past they act swiftly and ruthlessly to crush any challenge.
Khamenei’s chief aim is to ensure the Islamic system’s survival. Public pressure for change and heightened factional tension should convince him, despite his deep suspicion of the United States, that it is worth exploring a deal with Obama.
Many experts believe that by completing the nuclear fuel cycle under international supervision, but without testing or building a weapon, Iran can deter its enemies and entrench its regional influence without incurring an Israeli or American strike. To spurn Obama’s offer and press ahead with an unsupervised nuclear program would invite such intervention and could put the regime’s survival at risk.
So whoever wins the vote, it could be “game on” in Tehran.