Asia-Pacific, Headlines, North America, Nuclear Energy - Nuclear Weapons, Peace

POLITICS: Iranian Elections Could Shape U.S. Engagement

Daniel Luban and Ali Gharib

WASHINGTON, Jun 10 2009 (IPS) - Washington is waiting anxiously on the outcome of Friday’s Iranian presidential elections, as incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attempts to fend off challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi in a contest with significant implications for the diplomatic atmosphere between Iran and the U.S.

Experts say that the concrete policy impact of the elections may not be particularly great from a U.S. perspective. Both leading candidates support a civilian nuclear programme, and the president’s influence on foreign policy in general – although a matter of some debate – is relatively small compared to that of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Nevertheless, the overall tone of the U.S.-Iran relationship is likely to be affected by whether Ahmadinejad, whose confrontational style has helped stoke tensions and made him a favourite target for hawks in the U.S., is re-elected.

As the campaign comes down to the wire, a great deal of uncertainty remains about the outcome. In addition to Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, an elder statesman who was Iran’s prime minister during the 1980s, other candidates include former Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) commander Mohsen Rezai and former Majles speaker Mehdi Karroubi.

Fairly or unfairly, the election is also likely to be taken as an indicator of the prospects for success of U.S. President Barack Obama’s diplomatic outreach to Tehran, with the two reformist-leaning candidates, Karroubi and Mousavi, emphasising dialogue with the West.

In the U.S., hawks – who have generally been sceptical of Obama’s outreach and have urged him to act against Iran’s uranium enrichment by moving quickly to harsher measures such as sanctions – have been hammering home the point that Khamenei calls all the shots.

"Iran’s presidents are more cheerleader-in-chief than commander-in-chief," prominent Iran hawk Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. Clawson argues that the elections matter only because they give the international community a window into Khamenei’s thinking.

But others suggest that although Khamenei may set the broad outlines of Iranian foreign policy, the president has more latitude in implementing this policy than is sometimes recognised.

For instance, the president will appoint the diplomats who would engage in potential negotiations with the West.

"For all their differences on Ahmadinejad’s policies, all the candidates back continuation of uranium enrichment," Robin Wright of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars said last week at a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace panel.

"But it is true that the emphasis, the atmospherics, the climate, the style and the civility of both foreign and domestic policy could change enormously depending on who wins," Wright added.

The fact that Iran hawks in the U.S. are emphasising the relative unimportance of Iran’s presidency may be a sign that they have begun to take seriously the possibility of a Mousavi victory.

During Ahmadinejad’s tenure, those pushing confrontation with Tehran generally preferred to highlight the president at the expense of the Supreme Leader, as Ahmadinejad’s controversial statements provoked an international uproar and helped foster alarm about the Islamic Republic.

Ahmadinejad has been favoured to win reelection throughout the campaign, but anecdotal evidence has suggested that Mousavi’s support is surging in the final days. On Tuesday, a crowd estimated in the tens of thousands demonstrated on a Tehran thoroughfare in support of Mousavi.

The movement around Mousavi has grown through the use of internet social media such as Facebook, which was briefly banned by Ahmadinejad’s authorities before being reinstated, and text messages, which were used to get the word out about Tuesday’s rally.

The tactic may be paying off – Mousavi appears to be mobilising young voters, especially in the usually-apathetic urban centres. Some 60 percent of Iranian are under 30 years old – meaning they have no memory of the time before the Islamic Revolution.

Agence France-Presse reported that the electoral committee was expecting a record number of the 46.2 million eligible voters to turnout on Friday, which will likely benefit Mousavi.

Some recent polls have also put Mousavi in the lead, although polling in Iran is notoriously unreliable.

Recent government-funded polls have found that 16 to 18 million Iranians favour Mousavi, while only 8 million support Ahmadinejad, Newsweek magazine reported.

In any case, the Obama administration has suggested that it is waiting until after the elections to pursue diplomatic engagement with Tehran.

In May, Obama suggested that his administration would perform a "reassessment" at the end of the year to judge the progress of diplomacy, although he did not specify any particular benchmarks that would have to be met by that time.

The president is under a great deal of pressure from both hawks in the U.S. and the Israeli government to take a hard line against Tehran. The most frequent suggestion is for his administration to implement sanctions against companies exporting refined petroleum products to Iran if talks do not soon produce a breakthrough on the nuclear issue.

However, even some hawks question whether such sanctions would be effective. In a recent article in The New Republic, Michael Makovsky and Ed Morse – two members of a Bipartisan Policy Centre (BPC) task force that last year produced a hard-line report about the Iranian nuclear programme – argued that sanctions are "unlikely to have much of an impact".

Another member of the BPC task force was Dennis Ross, who is now the Obama administration’s special representative in charge of Iran.

Ross, who was the Bill Clinton administration’s top Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiator and maintains a close relationship with U.S. neoconservatives, has a reputation as the administration’s most prominent hawk on the Iranian nuclear issue. According to former National Security Council (NSC) staffers Flynt Leverett and Hilary Mann Leverett, Ross has stated privately that military force against Iran will likely be necessary, and that the primary reason to engage in diplomacy is to built support for military action.

But how much support Ross’s views command within the administration remains unknown, with some suggesting that he is an outlier whose chief role will be to "sell" any U.S.-Iranian deal to Israel.

"[The Obama administration] wants to try to deal with the Iranian government as a unitary actor, as opposed to how President Bill Clinton engaged reformers at the expense of hardliners, and President George W. Bush engaged the people at the expense of the regime," Iran expert Karim Sadjapour of the Carnegie Endowment told IPS.

Indeed, Obama has repeatedly referred to Iran by its official name, "the Islamic Republic of Iran", a formulation shunned by the Bush administration and by hardliners with designs of regime change in Tehran.

Obama’s remarks in Cairo about Iran were notably conciliatory. He became the first president to acknowledge the U.S. role in the 1953 coup that overthrew democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh (then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright acknowledged as much in 2000), and refrained from commenting on Friday’s election, saying, "We would never presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election."

Obama also stated that Iran "should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty", while reiterating his opposition to an Iranian nuclear weapon.

On Monday, the Boston Globe reported that the Obama administration was looking into creating a "fuel bank" administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog, which would provide an aboveboard system for countries looking to develop nuclear power to acquire fuel in a monitored setting.

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