Judging by the platforms of the three candidates presently approved to challenge Ahmadinejad in the June 12 presidential elections, they all wish to improve Iran’s relations with the West.
Why? Three reasons demonstrate their motivations.
First is Barack Obama. His Nowruz (Iranian new year) message to the people of Iran and his popularity in the international arena has impacted domestic Iranian politics, without Obama making an overt statement such as a candidate endorsement. The majority of candidates see this as an opportunity, including Mohsen Rezai.
The former head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC), Rezai is currently sought by INTERPOL for his involvement in the 1994 AMIA bombing in Argentina. Despite his murky past, Rezai — who sees himself as a pragmatic — is standing for election. In a recent interview with the German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau, Rezai stated that “current changes in American foreign policy must be taken seriously.” The change he sees includes “America’s lack of interest to send its armies around the world.”
In other words, unlike Bush, Obama is not interested in the invasion of other countries — including Iran. Rezai is interested in cooperating with the U.S. on issues such as illicit drugs, peace and stability in the Near and Middle East, and the global economic crisis.
When it comes to Israel, Rezai — who referred to Imad Mughniya, the assassinated head of Hezbollah’s armed forces, as his friend — believes that the best way to prevent an Israeli attack is to build an international nuclear fuel consortium on Iranian soil. Such a group would include the U.S. itself, as well as Russia and the E.U. He believes that with such countries as stakeholders, Israel would be unlikely to attack.
Rezai also states that “the people of Palestine should determine their own destiny.”
Domestic politics also fuel the drive for improved relations with the West, according to reformists Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. These politicians have witnessed how U.S. relations and Holocaust issues have been hijacked by Ahmadinejad and his supporters. What worries them is that he has been using such issues to his advantage by isolating Iran. They know that Ahmadinejad and his radical partners thrive in isolation, using it to stifle domestic opposition. Isolation and confrontation with the international community also give Ahmadinejad an opportunity to implement policy with little concern for other voices. Over the last four years, the opposition has suffered under isolation and now wishes to put an end to it. They want to reclaim their stature within Iranian politics, and bringing Iran out of isolation is a means towards that end.
The opposition candidates are also worried about the future, even if they are not elected. Rezai said Ahemadinejad’s reelection could “throw the country into the abyss.” This could be interpreted as meaning that the regime itself could be endangered.
Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy is not the only cause of concern. His economic policies have caused huge damage, increasing Iran’s need to open up to the West. Iran needs investment and expertise, more so now than before. Mehdi Karoubi, the former speaker of the Majles, said: “The 200,000 letters which Ahmadinejad receives on provincial trips are not love letters. They show the sheer number of problems which people have.”
The reformists have backed such statements, with Mousavi asking a number of questions regarding the oil income. As Iran’s prime minister from 1981-1989, Mousavi ran the country with $7 billion in yearly income. But Iran took in $60 billion last year, and Mousavi, along with his supporters, wants to know where the money went.
The reformists are also enraged by Ahmadinejad’s populist overtures — such as holding potato giveaways in order to garner votes. “Death to the government of potatoes!” has become a standard chant among anti-Ahmadinejad reformists.
So far, Ahmadinejad has focused on Iran’s achievements with its nuclear program and within its defense industry, which was able to successfully place a satellite in orbit. He has also focused his ire on the Khatami administration for suspending uranium enrichment in 2005, an agreement and rapprochement which Ahamadinejad found humiliating.
In a recent interview, Ahmadinejad additionally defended his Holocaust remarks: “The west uses the Holocaust as a tool to oppress others. We targeted the Holocaust and they can’t believe that we did this, because we targeted their weak spot. They can now see that Iran carries the same weight as the U.S. in international dealings.” To Ahmadinejad, breaking bonds and accords with the West is the best way to secure Iran’s future.
Although Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei determines the general direction of Iranian foreign policy, the U.S. would be forgiven for interpreting an Ahmadinejad loss as a sign that Khamenei is after a change in direction of Iran’s policies. If Ahmadinejad wins, we should expect the status quo or worse. Ahmadinejad could interpret a victory as a sign of stronger backing from Khamenei. Worse still, as Iranian law dictates that Ahmadinejad cannot stand for three consecutive elections, he will have little incentive to act in a less radical manner.