by John Limbert
via IPS News
For Washington, obsessed with matters Iranian, it may be hard to accept a simple fact: Iran’s Jun. 14 presidential election is an Iranian event. If we attempt to make it about us, we will find ourselves on the same road that has previously led to multiple failures: Iran-contra; “goodwill begets goodwill”; and a non-existent two-track policy.
In other words, we will continue the futility of the last three decades when we thought we could pick winners and losers in Iran’s elections or become involved in the country’s internal politics. If we do the same now, we will again get tied up in knots of our own bad assumptions and uninformed decisions.
So what, if anything, should the United States do and say about Iran’s election?
First, we should shut up about everything but the basics and stick to the universal principles of good government.
We should not help the Islamic Republic make the election about us.
The ideologues in Tehran would love to paint a vote for this or that candidate as a slap in the face to “world arrogance” (the U.S.), or to portray a candidate who advocates rationality as an U.S. agent.
Second, if we must say something about the election, we should say as little as possible and choose our words cautiously.
To begin with the obvious, the election will give Washington an opportunity simply because Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will no longer be in office.
As long as he was, his outrageous statements on the Holocaust, Israel and other matters made him too toxic for U.S. officials to deal with on any issue and at any level. In Washington, officials dismissed anything – reasonable or not – with Ahmadinejad’s fingerprints on it.
Of course late-night comics and those who would turn the Islamic Republic into a superhuman threat to civilisation will miss him.
His love of the absurd and his divisiveness made him a liability even for his own countrymen, who criticised him for talking without thinking and for his needless provocative rhetoric that could drag Iran to destruction.
The reality is that the Iranian president has almost always been a minor figure in Iranian politics. True power lies elsewhere, and the sooner the president accepted his unimportance, the smoother his tenure would be.
Even Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader, reportedly complained about his powerlessness when he was Iran’s president from 1981 to 1989.
Real change will come not when one Iranian figurehead replaces another. It will likely come with the end of Iran’s senior clerical elite and the network of financial, judicial and security institutions it controls.
It’s worth noting that the group of about 25 oligarchs who have held the key positions in the Islamic Republic since 1979 is now much smaller, and that one of its key figures – former president Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani – has taken the unlikely role of outsider.
But those members of the men’s club who do remain – including figures such as Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, Mohammad Yazdi, Ahmad Jannati, and Ali Khamenei himself – continue to wield considerable power.
Thus far they have shown little inclination to change either the foreign or domestic policies that have kept them in their palaces for the past 34 years.
The U.S. would certainly like to see free and fair elections in Iran. But until that blessed day arrives, we will have to deal with a less ideal world.
If the Jun. 14 Iranian election is ultimately “good enough” (that is, if it is better than Iran’s 2009 election and no worse than the 2000 U.S. presidential election), President Obama should send a note of congratulation to the winner.
In that note he should chose his platitudes carefully and avoid gratuitous insults like “odious regime”, “change your behaviour” or “stop support for terrorists”.
Judicious language about “mutual respect” and “mutual interest”, which the president used in the first years of his administration, puts the ideologues of the Islamic Republic in a most uncomfortable place.
Although they know well (with more than 30 years of practice) how to respond to American insults, thoughtful U.S. language discredits their rhetoric and neutralises their anti-U.S. slogans.
After all, how can the Islamic Republic make a believable enemy of someone who seeks discussions based on “mutual respect”, something the Iranians have always said they want as a condition of engagement?
I am always optimistic that the U.S, and Iran can somehow end their unique 34-year estrangement – an estrangement that has done no one any good and threatens to descend into an armed conflict that neither side says it wants.
A recent “Iran Project” study, endorsed by three dozen former U.S. officials and scholars, says of the U.S.-Iran relationship: “The [American] goal would be to build a practical relationship that could over time help the United States achieve its principal objectives without resort to force.”
Such a relationship would be a major break with the past three decades of hostility and exchanges of empty slogans, threats, insults and occasionally worse.
That break, however, is unlikely to happen as a result of this June’s Iranian presidential election.
There was no break in the U.S.-Iran estrangement even after Mohammad Khatami’s election in 1997, although both sides lowered the volume of their rhetoric for a time and spoke about “dialogues” and “roadmaps”.
At that time the two countries began exchanging artists, scientists, and sports teams, but somehow those worthy programmes did not result in any change at the political level. Wrestlers and filmmakers came and went, but the silent treatment and hostility remained among officials.
So what should the U.S. do or say about the Iranian election?
Keep focused on our own goal, which, as the above-noted study says, is to achieve principal American objectives without resorting to the use of force.
Doing so requires saying as little as possible and ensuring that official statements emphasise the principle that Iranians, like the rest of us, deserve a government that does not steal elections and allows its citizens to express themselves without fear of the club and the goon squad. Everyone will get the point.
— John Limbert is Class of 1955 Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. During a 34-year diplomatic career, he served in Tehran (where he was a hostage at the U.S. Embassy in 1979-81) and, in 2009-2010, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern (Iranian) Affairs.