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What Moderate Means in Tehran

According to an analysis published by Reuters, the new U.S. administration is in agreement with some Western European countries that the June presidential election in Iran could conceivably bring a moderate to power and create opportunities for diplomacy.

Do any candidates in the race warrant such hopes? There are currently three challengers to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — but Mirhossein Musavi seems in pole position.  He is viewed as a reformist and fondly remembered by some in Iran for his competent management of the ship of state during the Iran-Iraq war, when he was prime minister. Next comes Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf — a former IRGC air force commander with a clear track record of supporting hard-line stances domestically, including support for the crackdown of students in the summer of 1999, and police brutality in 2003 when he was chief of police. He is close to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and so is the other candidate — Mehdi Karrubi — who’s the only cleric to run.

On the surface, one could count on Mousavi to show a more reasonable face to the world than the current president has. But quite aside from Mousavi’s past relations with the current supreme leader not always being a friendly one — Khamenei was president when Mousavi was prime minister — there is little difference on nuclear issues between Iran’s various factions. Consider this: It was on Mousavi’s watch that, in 1984, Iran restarted its nuclear program. It was during his time as prime minister and later on during the presidency of Akbar Hashem Rafsanjani that Iran’s illicit nuclear procurements from Pakistan — including weapons’ designs — took place. Rafsanjani did nothing to stop, suspend, or slow down Iran’s nuclear program — only Khatami did when he was president, and only after the program was exposed to the world. But if one believes certain details in the U.S. 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program, that means Khatami’s Iran spent 5 years of his presidency building nuclear weapons — hardly an indication of a reformist changing direction.

For these reasons, it is a mistake to make the June presidential election such a watershed event. Even a reformist president is unlikely to renounce Iran’s nuclear ambitions, unless under severe pressure from the outside — Khatami allegedly suspended Iran’s weaponization program and agreed to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment due to outside pressure, not for lack of enthusiasm in the program. Whether Obama wishes to negotiate before imposing new sanctions is a different question — but tougher sanctions should not fall prey to electoral cycles.


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