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Iran's Vote, Obama's Challenge

Foreign policy is front and center in the Iranian electoral debate. It's clear from countless discussions I've had in Tehran this week that many Iranians blame Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for isolating Iran, creating a needless confrontation with the United States, provoking a harsh set of economic sanctions that has crippled Iran's oil, aviation, and computer/IT industries.

Those Iranians want the next president, whoever he is--and all signs continue to suggest that Mir Hossein Mousavi will be the winner--to make restoring Iran's relations with the United States a top priority.

Of course, that might be difficult.

I spent much of Wednesday morning in discussions at the Iranian foreign ministry. For two hours, I spoke with Ali Akbar Rezaie, the director-general of the ministry's office responsible for North America. He credits President Obama for his efforts in Cairo and elsewhere to put an end to the "civilizational" conflict between the West and Islam. "Compared to anything we've heard in the last 30 years, and especially in the last eight years, his words were very different," he says. "People in the region received the speech, from this angle, very positively, with sympathy."

He seemed to hint that the election would set the stage for a real Iran-US dialogue. "After the election we will be in a better position to manage relations with the United States. We'll be at the beginning of a new four-year period, and the political framework will be clear."

But the devil is in the details, he suggests. On the nuclear issue, the biggest stumbling block so far, he says that Obama was, well, fuzzy. While Obama said that Iran has the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy, he said nothing--either way--about Iran's right to enrich uranium on Iranian soil. From Iran's point of view, says Rezaie, the fact that Obama didn't rule out (or condemn) the possibility of an Iran-based enrichment program is a good sign. "But it is still vague for us. It is not clear whether he omitted that point intentionally or not. We don't know what he has in mind."

Of course, negotiating the details of a solution to this thorny problem is precisely the point. During my visit, a number of well-connected Iranians have said that if the United States creates a hospitable climate for relations beween the two countries--for instance, were Obama to stop saying that "all options are on the table" including military action--the whole process might move forward more easily. "From a technical point of view, there are many things that both sides can talk about, but those points won't tabled as long as there isn't enough political will, on both sides," says Rezaie. "I understand it's difficult to define the right level of political will, but it should be enough to convince the other side that it is serious. So far we have seen good words [from Obama], but it's not enough yet."

At least five separate, very influential Iranian officials and former officials have said that the key is for the United States to deal directly with Ali Khamenei, the Leader, rather than worry about who is president. (Of course, were Ahmadinejad to be ousted on Friday, it would be infinitely easier for Obama to sell the idea of talking to Iran to a skeptical US public.)

Sadegh Kharazi, Iran's former ambassador to France, expressed frustration about America's seeming unwillingness to deal directly with Khamenei. "The audience for the United States should be the Leader," he says. "After the election, the United States can work directly with the Office of the Supreme Leader. They know people who work with the Office of the Supreme Leader." Among them, he and other Iranians suggest, are Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Khameni, and Kamal Kharazi, Sadegh Kharazi's uncle and head of Iran's Council on Foreign Relations. Both served as foreign minister previously. Perhaps half a dozen other leading Iranian figures can serve an intermediary, Iranian sources say.

"In Iran, the Iranian leadership--the president, the Leader, everyone--looks at Obama very positively," says Kharazi. "But we need a comprehensive plan from him. ... If Obama makes a practical gesture, Iran would immediately respond."

Currently, Kharazi is a chief foreign policy adviser to Mousavi's campaign. When  I met him yesterday. he was exhausted after a long campaign swing to southwest Iran, where he addressed a 10,000-strong Mousavi rally in Iran's oil capital of Ahwaz. He laid out for an eight-point plan for rebuilding US-Iran relations, including "transparency of Iran's nuclear program," i.e., strengthened safeguards to prevent the diversion of uranium into military use and a more stringent inspection regime.

Several other Iranians, perhaps less constricted by their official and semi-official positions were even more blunt about the problem.

Saeed Laylaz, a private businessman and economic analyst, earlier served in a top post in Iran's ministry of industry, until he ran afoul of President Ahmadinejad. He's on a personal campaign now to make sure the United States understands how to deal with the highly complex political system in Iran.

As we talked, he received a steady stream of phone calls from friends in Iran's far-flung provinces about the election outlook. Laylaz calls Ahmadinejad "stupid" and blames him for mismanaging Iran's faltering economy, including squandering $300 billion in oil revenue over the past four years that was "wasted and looted." But he is beside himself over America's inability to understand that power in Iran lies in the hands of Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad.

When Obama sent his remarkable Nowruz New Year's greeting last February, Iranians were stunned, he says. "People were excited and surprised. We realized that the US dialogue with Iran has changed basically and dramatically."

But Laylaz says that the US blew it. Very quickly after Obama's message, Khamenei responded with a public statement welcoming improved US ties and, he says, laying what he calls a "roadmap" for better ties."But Mr. Khamenei's response did not get the appropriate reaction in the United States." For instance, he says, Khamenei raised the question of Iran's frozen assets held in the United States dating back to 1979, a sum that amounts to something like $8 billion to $12 billion now, according to Laylaz. "Obama could have asked for a report about those frozen assets," he says. Doing so, even quietly, would have sent an enormous signal to Khamenei tha his message was heard loud and clear.

There are minefields aplenty in the coming US-Iran dialogue. Both sides are hugely suspicious of the other, and there are real, underlying issues that reflect conflicting interests between Washington and Tehran. On both sides, there are radicals and hardliners intent on sabotaging the prospect for better relations. In Iran, whatever happens in the election, there is bound to be a period of political instability during which the losing side (or sides) may not accept defeat quietly. (See the June 9 entry on The Dreyfuss Report about the forces that Ahmadinejad is mobilizing in support of his faltering campaign.)

But every day Tehran looks greener, as the Green Wave of the Mousavi campaign gathers momentum. Politics is getting raucous, with Ahmadinejad hurling accusations of corruption at his rivals, and their backers, including the powerful, wily former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Last night, Rafsanjani struck back, issuing a blistering letter attacking Ahmadinejad. It's an unprecedented display of vitriol, and increasingly it's looking like it's Ahmadinejad and a few cronies against, well, everyone else.

Bob Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss is an independent journalist based in New York City and Cape May, New Jersey. For the past twenty-five years, he’s written extensively on politics and national security for a wide range of publications. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Nation, The American Prospect, Mother Jones, The New Republic, The Huffington Post, Slate, Salon, and many other magazines and websites.

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