Iran's Upcoming Election Could Help Break Diplomatic Stalemate With U.S.

Iran's Upcoming Election Could Help Break Diplomatic Stalemate With U.S.

By Ian Bremmer - May 27, 2009

During a triumphant campaign swing through Iran's Semnan province Wednesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a message meant for several different audiences. Announcing the successful launch of a long-range surface-to-surface missile from a launch pad nearby, he reminded Americans that he wouldn't renounce Iran's nuclear ambitions, Israelis that they live well within the missile's range, and Iranian voters that he deserves another term as president.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei holds ultimate political authority in the country, but Iran's June 12 presidential election matters a great deal -- for Iran, for the Middle East and for the United States. If Ahmadinejad wins re-election, we can expect more of the same from Tehran: a determined drive toward nuclear capability, anti-Western rhetoric and isolation for Iran. But if Iranians choose a new president, we might see genuine (if slow) diplomatic progress on several important fronts

Voters will choose among the four candidates who have earned permission to run from the country's Guardian Council, a dozen senior officials with enormous political power. The candidates are Ahmadinejad, former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi, and former head of the Revolutionary Guards Mohsen Rezaei. According to Iran's Interior Ministry, 471 would-be candidates were rejected -- including 42 women, several illiterate peasants and one 12-year-old boy.

Election results in Iran are especially tough to forecast. Public polling isn't reliable, candidates have just three weeks to make their case, and cheating could swing enough votes to make a difference. But for the moment, it appears we'll see a close race between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. If no candidate wins a majority on June 12, a second round of voting will be held on June 19. Between 60 and 70 percent of Iran's 46 million eligible voters are expected to cast ballots in the first round.

With a base of 10 to 12 million core supporters, Ahmadinejad has a solid shot at re-election, especially if turnout is unexpectedly low. Defiance of U.S. and European governments on foreign and security policy questions, particularly the nuclear program, earned him the endorsement of a key conservative coalition. The advantage of incumbency will boost his chances against lesser-known candidates, and his considerable charm and populist rhetoric still play well among rural voters and the urban poor. Mousavi, his most credible challenger, has remained outside politics for 20 years and is largely unknown for much of the electorate. Ahmadinejad's allies hold positions of power within the Interior Ministry, which will count the votes.

Despite these advantages, Mousavi is a serious contender. He's a credible moderate reformer, which plays well with young voters fed up with social restrictions and the morals police. He has the endorsement of most major reformist coalitions and of former President Mohammad Khatami, who remains broadly popular with reform-minded youth.

But he also has solid conservative credentials, which have won him friends within the establishment who believe Ahmadinejad has damaged Iran's international standing. Having served as prime minister during Iran's war with Iraq during the 1980s, Mousavi even has some (limited) support within the Revolutionary Guard, an important political player.

In addition, Ahmadinejad faces charges of extreme economic malpractice. Surging inflation and high unemployment have taken a considerable toll on his popularity, and opposition from mainstream clerical groups could cost him in a close race. Iran, which lacks the capacity to refine much of its considerable crude oil production, erupted into riots in 2007 when Ahmadinejad's government announced the rationing of gasoline. That's another reason why the president prefers to talk about missiles.

The White House will be closely following the returns. An Ahmadinejad win would signal that his belligerent approach to the West has paid domestic political dividends and should continue. We might still see direct, high-level U.S.-Iranian talks, though the two sides would likely do much more talking than listening.

But a Mousavi victory might slowly bring a new pragmatism to the relationship. The former prime minister has publicly denounced "extremism" in Ahmadinejad's conduct of foreign affairs and has argued for détente as a guiding policy principle.

Any major initiative will require Khamenei's approval, and all four candidates support Iran's nuclear program. But Mousavi's public comments suggest he means to improve Iran's international image, a plan that could bring new flexibility on a range of issues important to Washington. In particular, his nuclear negotiating team would likely include creative diplomats capable of producing new ideas.

Only new ideas can break the diplomatic stalemate. So far, Obama administration policy toward Iran has focused mainly on avoiding any action that might provoke voters and boost Ahmadinejad's chances. But after the election, the White House will likely move quickly to engage Iran with a proposal that includes sweeter carrots and sharper sticks meant to contain Iran's nuclear breakout.

Obama, aware that skittish allies have commercial incentives not to push energy-rich Iran too far, has floated a new plan. Tehran may well be permitted to enrich uranium on Iranian soil, a key sticking point in the past, but it must allow international inspectors free access to all nuclear sites to ensure that the country's scientists aren't producing highly enriched uranium (HEU) -- the necessary step for weaponization. It's a tactically clever move, because if Iran's claim that it wants nuclear power only for energy purposes is to be believed, it won't need HEU.

If by the end of this year Tehran hasn't committed to an agreement Washington can accept, Obama has warned that the U.S. will press friends and allies to tighten already tough sanctions on Iran -- and possibly to block Iran's ability to import gasoline. If Iran won't accept a reasonable offer in a reasonable timeframe, the argument goes, why shouldn't Iran face deeper isolation?

Of course, the nuclear standoff is hardly the only important issue that Washington and Tehran both care about. Though their interests in Iraq and Afghanistan will never fully converge, neither side will benefit from long-term instability in those countries. Iran's material support for Hezbollah and Hamas might also become part of the longer-term agenda.

There's little reason to believe that a breakthrough in U.S.-Iranian relations is right around the corner -- no matter what Iranians do at the polls. But no one in Washington will be disappointed if Iran's next president spends less time bragging about missiles and more time looking for ways to re-engage the United States.

Ian Bremmer is the president and founder of Eurasia Group, a global political risk research and consulting firm. You can follow him on Twitter at @ianbremmer.

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