Opinions

Washington Is Watching, But How Closely?

June 14, 2013
2013 Presidential Elections
3 min read
Washington Is Watching, But How Closely?
Washington Is Watching, But How Closely?

By Azadeh Moaveni

Iran's vote is being followed by policy-makers and officials around the world, but with different expectations and more skepticism than perhaps ever before. In the United States especially, the media has expressed less interest in today's election than any vote in years past, with newspapers and pundits embracing the position that the outcome matters little to Iran's international position. We turned to Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endownment For International Peace, a prominent Iran scholar who has the ear of senior of officials, to gauge the mood in Washington. 

How closely are policy-makers in Washington following this election?

People are curious about the elections but not like they were in 2009. I think there is a general consensus and understanding in Washington that a different president won’t change the fact that Ayatollah Khamenei will continue to have veto power over the issues of foremost concern for the US, specifically the nuclear file and Iran’s regional policies. Given everything else that’s happening in the Middle East right now—particularly the devastation in Syria—Iran’s presidential elections are not the primary policy focus. That said, in the event of egregious electoral abuses or popular tumult, I think you’ll see the administration be willing to be bolder this time around, as compared to 2009. Four years ago there was a hope in DC that a more conciliatory US approach might beget a nuclear deal w Tehran, if not a broader political settlement. Today I don’t think anyone has any illusions that being deferential to Khamenei, or silent about the Iranian regime's treatment of its population, will compel Tehran to moderate tits nuclear policies.

Is there a sense amongst the policy establishment that the outcome will make a difference to key areas of concern with Iran?

Not really. I haven’t spoken to anyone who has high hopes that the election will meaningfully alter Iran’s foreign policy behavior, whether its nuclear ambitions, support for Syria, or support for groups like Hezbollah and rejection of Israel’s existence. In my opinion the biggest source of tension between the US and Iran is not the nuclear issue but diametrically opposed positions toward Israel. I don’t think the US congress can “agree to disagree” with a regime that so actively agitates against Israel’s existence.  

How are the candidates viewed, is there anyone in particular that Washington feels like it could do business with better than others?

People are perhaps not as familiar with the candidates—and the differences between them—as they were in 2009. Jalili is familiar to some officials who’ve dealt with him in nuclear negotiations, and generally held in very low esteem as someone who lacks intelligence, sophistication, and diplomatic tact. Rowhani is probably the last-bad option for US officials who would like to embark on a fruitful confidence building process with Tehran. But again, I think there is a realistic understanding as to the limits of a president’s authority and ability to deliver. Indeed I think some would argue that it may be expedient to have a Khamenei lackey—such as a Jalili or Velayati--as president, in order to reduce the regime’s internal tension and make it easier to come to an internal consensus about a nuclear deal.

This is widely considered to be a conservative, dull election that's only generating last minute interest in Tehran. Is turnout something policymakers will be watching closely, as a measure of the regime's post-2009 resilience?  

There are a few truly knowledgable Iran  watchers in the US Government who follow these things very carefully. But in DC as a whole, which included Congress, I'd argue that more people do not trust the integrity of the election process enough to pay attention to issues like voter turnout, which they assume the regime manipulates.

Regarding the regime's resilience, I think few people assess that it is on the verge of collapse, or that Iranian society is in a pre-revolutionary state. More people see in Iran an authoritarian regime ruling over a young, frustrated population, which has managed, for the time being, to crush dissent. I believe the president's priority remains to do a nuclear deal with the Iranian regime, not try to quixotically overthrow it.

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