On Tuesday, Iran’s Guardian Council turned down the candidacies of two potential presidential candidates: one, a close aide and associate of current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the other, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, now associated with the reformist wing of Iranian politics.
While the Council did approve 8 other candidates, the two who would have been, arguably, the most important candidates–one with close ties to the incumbent administration, and the other with ties to reformists–have been denied the opportunity to run.
In addition to disenfranchising the Iranian electorate, this has important implications for American foreign policy, due to the restiveness and independence of the Iranian people, and furthermore, their willingness to take a stand against the will of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, as they demonstrated 4 years ago in 2009.
Indeed, it is my argument that had Rafsanjani himself been allowed to run, it is likely that the peace process, both with Israel and with the wider Middle East, would have been greatly advanced, and moreover, a Rafsanjani presidency could well have been extraordinarily helpful in trying to resolve the ongoing stalemate over Iran’s nuclear program.
Once again, the West is failing to use a unique opportunity and pressure point against Iran.
Indeed, there was a simple step that the United States could and should have taken this week that had the potential to fundamentally change the dynamic vis-à-vis Iran, and yet, no one in Washington took a stand: we should have called on the Iranian regime, and particularly the Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, to allow all the candidates who have registered to run in Iran’s upcoming June 14th presidential election to have their names appear on the ballot.
Why was this seemingly innocuous step so important?
Because former President Hashemi Rafsanjani would have been a leading candidate–perhaps the leading candidate–in next month’s presidential election. Rafsanjani, with little notice or attention, has committed to a program of not only economic liberalization in the authoritarian country, but also a movement towards normalizing relations with the West and potentially resolving the ongoing nuclear stalemate, as well as–however tentatively and preliminarily– making it clear that he does not believe that Israel is Iran’s mortal enemy, and that he does not wish to initiate conflict with them, or with anyone else in the region. Indeed, Rafsanjani has recently said that no, “We are not at war with Israel.”
And Rafsanjani could have won the election. Iranians of all stripes, and particularly those in urban centers, long for a return to the success that the country achieved during his administration in the late 80s and 90s. Furthermore, a leader who advocates for the kind of ideas that Rafsanjani has presented would be a profound change from the policies of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an outspoken Holocaust denier who has said that he believes that the state of Israel should be “wiped off the map.”
But instead, Rafsanjani has been banned from participating in the election. And there has only been silence in the West.
It is essential that the United States support freedom and democracy throughout the world, and particularly in countries where it can make a profound different in their governance. Thus, it was critically important for President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to take a stand on the issue of free and fair elections in Iran, and to say that it is of central importance that there be free elections in June, that everyone who has registered must be eligible to run, and that the United States, because of its commitment to the Arab Spring, and to freedom and liberty everywhere, wants to let the will and voice of the Iranian people be heard.
One of the saddest chapters in recent American foreign policy history was the outcome of the profoundly tragic presidential election in 2009, when reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi appeared to have won the election, only to have it stolen from him by Ahmadinejad. Hundreds of thousands of people protested in the streets in 2009, but the United States turned the other cheek, and the result was four more years of authoritarian governance under Ahmadinejad, and Mousavi being put under house arrest, where he remains to this day.
In 2009 we allowed a critically important opportunity to place pressure on the tottering Iranian regime to pass us by because we seemingly did not want to jeopardize future negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program–negotiations that have been spasmodic at best, and have produced absolutely no results at all.
Now it appears that we have not, in fact, learned from our mistakes–our approach, as of this writing, has been no different. Rafsanjani has been barred from participating in the upcoming election. This is simply wrong, contrary to Iranian and American interests, and is ultimately an effort to silence the Iranian people.
Make no mistake–Rafsanjani is no angel. He has been linked to numerous corruption scandals in the past, and during his tenure as President, between 1989 and 1997, faced credible allegations that he was complicit in the persecution, if not assassination, of Iranian opposition activists. He has grown extraordinarily wealthy due to questionable business ventures, and while he has shown a willingness to accept Israel’s right to exist, he has still said that he would side with the Arab nations, should they engage in armed conflict with Israel.
But at the same time, Rafsanjani is a pragmatist and an economic reformer: he is an advocate of free market capitalism, and of normalizing relations with the West. He is a serious candidate who has effectively articulated the outlines of a reform platform for Iran that has the potential to diffuse tensions in the Middle East, reignite a failed economy, and most importantly, begin constructive talks to end the stalemate over their nuclear program.
Furthermore, Rafsanjani was a supporter of 2009′s Green Movement and of the reformist former President Mohammad Khatami, who made a particular effort to improve relations with the West in the late 90s and early 2000s. A long time pragmatist, Rafsanjani pledged to provide new, and arguably compassionate leadership, and a government of national unity, in contrast to the divisive and polarizing leadership of the current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Rafsanjani’s 50 year friendship with the Ayatollah Khamenei, as disturbing as that may appear to be, is actually an additional reason why his election could have spelled long term change for the country.
Put simply, Rafsanjani can reach the Ayatollah Khamenei on the phone, and indeed, in the days before he filed his candidacy, he reportedly sat in his home, waiting for the imprimatur of the Supreme Leader for his candidacy.