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Iran: What Will Election Mean For Tehran's Foreign Policy?

  • Charles Recknagel

Frontrunner Rafsanjani has hinted at opening negotiations with the U.S. The run-up to Iran's presidential election on 17 June is being closely watched in Western capitals. It could augur for some changes in Iranian foreign policy over the next four-year presidential term. But, at the same time, any of the candidates who wins office would have to work within the tight constraints imposed by Iran's conservative establishment.

Prague, 15 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Competing in the Iranian presidential election race are five conservative candidates and three reformists.

Polls in Iran have limited reliability but consistently have shown Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani to be the frontrunner. He is a high-ranking conservative cleric who is often termed a pragmatic politician and pro-business centrist.

Rafsanjani already has served two terms as Iran's president from 1989 to 1997 and is branding himself as the only one of the eight candidates with the stature to deliver on his campaign promises.

The former president, 70, heads Iran's top political arbitration body -- the Expediency Council. He says he wants to integrate Iran into the global economy. And last month, he hinted that could include opening negotiations with the United States.
"It's a strange situation where you find that European governments and Western governments find themselves perhaps hoping that a pragmatic conservative triumphs over a reformist."


"We cannot ignore the U.S. -- the fact is that the U.S. is a world superpower. Actually, we should act wisely with this superpower in a way that steers it away from adventurism. We should let the U.S. understand that adventurism in the Middle East region cannot serve its interest," Rafsanjani said.

Rafsanjani said yesterday that "I am going for a policy of relaxation in tension and detente and this is a policy that I will apply towards the United States as well." But he added, "if the United States wants to continue its obstructions and hostility then the previous conditions will persist."

He also has said Washington must take the first step by releasing Iranian assets frozen since U.S. diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The two countries have had no diplomatic ties since then.

Rafsanjani has not said how he would address another of Iran's big foreign policy issues -- its controversial nuclear activities. But he has called Iran's nuclear program "our nation's legitimate right."

That language mirrors Iran's current position of holding talks with European states concerned about its nuclear program, but so far refusing to give up so-called dual-use technologies. Those are technologies that can be applied to either a nuclear energy or nuclear weapons program.

Kenneth Katzman, a U.S. foreign policy expert with the U.S. Congressional Research Service in Washington, D.C., says that Rafsanjani appears to want to take a pragmatic approach to foreign affairs.

But Katzman questions whether, as a top ranking member of the conservative clerical establishment, Rafsanjani would be able to dramatically change current policies:

"That's what he's advertised himself as [a pragmatist]. I still think he is constrained by a political structure that remains extremely hesitant and extremely suspicious of the United States and he himself believes that Iranian WMD [weapons of mass destruction] programs are the way to go and the key to insuring that Iran is not humiliated anymore and that Iran is completely secure," Katzman said.

Rafsanjani's previous terms as president saw some socioeconomic liberalization and appointments of technocrats but not enough to attract extensive foreign investment.

Some analysts say Rafsanjani also failed to capitalize on feelers from Washington exploring the possibility of talks to reduce Iran-U.S. tensions.

At the same time, critics say Rafsanjani allowed his Ministry of Intelligence free rein for crackdowns on domestic political activists. By the time Rafsanjani left office, EU states had withdrawn all their ambassadors from Iran due to evidence Tehran ordered the assassination of Iranian opposition figures in Germany.

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Still, Western capitals may prefer dealing with Rafsanjani -- who has the clout of a top insider -- to dealing with a winner from among the other, lesser-known candidates.

Ben Faulks, a regional specialist at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, puts the reason this way.

"European governments obviously haven't openly expressed any particular preference, but I think it's fairly apparent that they would favor Rafsanjani because of the fact that he is probably the person most able and in best position to deliver some kind of deal on the nuclear program, some kind of compromise. Rafsanjani is considered possibly only second to the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] in influence and if anyone can do that kind of thing it would be him," Faulks said.

During his campaign, Rafsanjani has said: "Regarding nuclear and other issues, I am the closest person to the [Supreme] Leader."

But the relationship between the two men is not always clear. Some analysts say they are strategic partners with a long history of working together. Others say the Supreme Leader's support is variable and depends on his own efforts to maintain balance within the establishment.

Among the reformists, the frontrunner is Mustafa Moin, 54, a former minister for higher education. He is joined by running mate Mohammad Reza Khatami, the younger brother of outgoing President Mohammad Khatami.

Moin's platform emphasizes liberalizing the economy and easing tensions with Washington. He also champions greater intellectual freedom and cultural diversity, and has said he would be prepared to give up uranium enrichment for a period of time if it were in Iran's national interest to do so.

Those are positions that should please the West. But some analysts say that they may not be enough to make Moin, or another reformist candidate, the West's first choice as a new negotiating partner.

Faulks says the reformists now labor under the shadow of President Khatami's inability to push through their initiatives during his two terms in office. For part of that time, reformists dominated both Iran's legislative and executive branches, yet were stymied by resistance from the conservative establishment, including crackdowns.

"It's a strange situation where you find that European governments and Western governments find themselves perhaps hoping that a pragmatic conservative triumphs over a reformist who espouses ideals such as democracy and human rights. But of course it is difficult to see that Moin could be any more effective than Khatami was and would very probably be less effective. He is after all facing a reactionary, conservative Majlis [parliament] and very probably you would see a kind of stasis in policy making much as you do under Khatami, probably worse, unfortunately," Faulks said.

For Iran's neighbors, the election may not bring much change in relations with Iran.

Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a political analyst in Tehran, notes that Iran has supported the end of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the transition government in Iraq. That support includes taking part in international conferences to rebuild Afghanistan and in a U.S.-led conference on reconstructing Iraq this month.

Bavand says policies will continue independent of the poll results. However, after the election there might also be attempts to explore ways to open talks with Washington and discuss regional developments directly.

"They [some candidates] have indicated, at least Mr. Rafsanjani and Mr. Moin, that if they are going to be elected one of the major objectives in their foreign policy involves a kind of constructive negotiation with the United States. [On] the question of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the neighboring states of Iran, [they feel] that Iran in a way [should] accommodate the peaceful process of political development and changes in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan," Bavand said.

The other two reformist candidates for president are Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi, a former parliament speaker, and Mohsen Mehralizadeh, head of the national Physical Education Organization and a former provincial governor.

The other conservative candidates for president are Ali Larijani, until recently the head of the national radio and TV; Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the current mayor of Tehran; and Mohsen Rezai, a former head of the Revolutionary Guards.

See also:

RFE/RL Special: Iran Votes 2005
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