When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is defeated in Iran ’s 2009 presidential elections, Barak Obama may have the best opportunity to recast U.S.-Iranian relations of any American leader since the 1979 Khomenei-led revolution. Despite Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s dominion over economic, military and judicial matters, and dissenting candidates nullification from seeking office by the Guardian Council, Iran ’s elections still matter. That’s why Ahmadinejad will be cast aside in 2009. Iran needs to reassure its people that its flagging economy will be repaired. Iran ’s leadership establishment may also use the elections to float a trial balloon signaling its willingness to explore a broader conversation with the United States on regional issues and its nuclear program.
The excitement in Iran surrounding Obama’s election and his campaign pledge to engage in talks with no pre-conditions has faded. Obama’s vow to use “more persuasive” carrots and sticks, or force if necessary to nudge Iran off its nuclear path, were condemned by Iran’s leaders as more of the same Bush polices. After nominating the conspicuously pro-Israel Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State , Iran ’s clerical and state ministry leaders concluded that Obama’s posture toward Tehran has calcified with diminishing prospects for change; at least until the June elections.
Leaving aside the incessant rhetoric characterizing Iran as a rouge state led by medieval mullahs, Tehran has transformed itself from Khomenei’s chaotic Islamic state into a classic regional hegemonic power. As a largely symbolic leader, Ahmadinejad embodies a confrontational response to the Bush administration’s aggressive regime change agenda. Whether he can serve as an effective spokesman for the newer imperatives of consolidating Iran ’s emerging power bases in Iraq , Afghanistan , Syria , Lebanon and the Gaza Strip is the subject of debate raging inside Iran ’s ruling circles.
Four names continue to surface as possible presidential candidates in 2009; Parliament speaker and former chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, former President Mohammad Khatami, Expediency Council leader Hashemi Rafsanjani and Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf. Ironically, Ahmadinejad beat three of the four potential candidates in the 2005 elections and Khatami has already served as President. Iranian conservatives and pragmatists working for Ahmadinejads defeat are reluctant to consider new blood, but they are moving to close ranks behind an anti-Ahmadinejad unity candidate. The stakes are too high to risk another 2005 surprise election that elevated Ahmadinejad from relative anonymity to the presidency. If the consensus candidate is not former President Khatami, Iran ’s new president could well be Baqer Qalibaf, the up-and- coming mayor of Tehran .
According to the Iranian blogger Zamin, Qalibaf has “spent the last few years remaking himself into a hardworking and successful mayor of Iran ’s most important city. He has been quietly working on development projects in Tehran and building political bridges with Iranian and foreign leaders. This year he traveled to Iraq and met with Ayatollah Sistani, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and the mayor of Baghdad whom he pledged to help rebuild the Iraqi capital city. Qalibaf has positioned himself as a moderate who favors diplomacy and pragmatism over rhetoric and saber-rattling. He has a distinguished background in both the Basij and Revolutionary Guards (he retired as a Major-General), earned a Ph.D. in political science, and was Chief of Police for Tehran .”
Qalibaf, is a compelling candidate, but it is circumstances on the ground in Iran that are moving the Persian street against Ahmadinejad. With a 25% inflation rate, 20% unemployment and oil prices that declined $100 a barrel since June, Ahmadinejad’s reformists and conservative opponents are attacking his failed economic policies and broken promises to end corruption and spread Iran ’s oil wealth to its poorest citizens. Quite the opposite his subsidy programs have fueled rampant inflation. Petrol rationing, power blackouts, water shortages and limited access to investment capital is squeezing Iran ’s economy. Even Iran ’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, publicly counseled Ahmadinejad in April to “pay attention to inflation.” When Ahmadinejad blamed his critic’s failed nuclear negotiations with Europe for the harsh economic sanctions imposed on Iran , Larijani countered that Ahmadinejad was too pro-U.S. for considering the opening of a U.S. Interest Section in Tehran . In domestic and foreign policy, these instances illustrate the difficulties hard line conservatives are having uniting behind Ahmadinejad’s United Principalist Front.
While speculation intensifies about who will be Iran ’s next president, the emerging consensus across the political spectrum regarding Tehran ’s expanding regional role in the Middle East is of greater significance to the incoming Obama administration. Iran wants America to acknowledge its sphere of influence in Iraq . The clerics and power ministry leaders also want a cessation of U.S. support for the Jundalla, the Mujahidin-eKhalq and PEJAK anti-Iranian forces operating inside its borders. Iran wants to be treated as an equal and indispensible player on energy issues in the Persian Gulf and better prices for its oil. Iran also wants fairness and greater access to opportunity for Shiia minority communities across the Middle East .
These issues are negotiable and could form the basis for start-up talks between Iran ’s new president and the Obama administration, either separate from the nuclear issue or on a two-track approach. On the other hand, Obama may continue the Bush policy of no direct talks until Iran halts all work on its enrichment program. It is a policy Iran will never agree to; a policy that will allow Iran to continue its enrichment activity with no verification process; a policy that can only increase the possibility of U.S. / Israel air strikes against Iran without eliminating Iran ’s nuclear program. It is a policy Obama should abandon in favor of direct negotiations.
For Barak Obama, who said that Iran will not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon, time is running out and so are his options. Iran will master the enrichment process to make a nuclear weapon during his first term of office. The elections in June 2009 may present Obama with his first big chance to alter the trajectory of U.S. Iran relations that are headed for a collision. He should take it.