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

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.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023 The Nation