After a turbulent eight-year tenure of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the people of Iran have made their voices heard in recent presidential elections by electing a reformist who will undoubtedly take a very different approach to pressing national issues. Though many hoped to see meaningful diplomatic engagement between Iran and the United States when U.S. President Barack Obama came to office, ties between Tehran and Washington remain as tense as ever, with Iran subjected to a crippling economic sanctions regime over its disputed nuclear program.
Although leaders in Israel and the United States repetitively insist that Iran is edging closer to the threshold in being able to create a nuclear weapon, evidence shows that Tehran’s nuclear program is for civilian purposes. Despite conducting its nuclear activities within the framework of international law, average Iranian citizens are the main victims of punishing US-led sanctions that have destroyed the Iranian currency and made life-saving medications unaffordable for most. To discuss how Iran’s newly elected president will face the challenges and controversies that dominate the Iranian political landscape, Russia Today columnist Nile Bowie talks to award-winning journalist Kourosh Ziabari and explores the recent presidential elections in Iran, the signals it’s sending to the international community, and the possible changes in Iran’s foreign and nuclear policy.
Q: Hassan Rouhani, a reform-minded moderate cleric and former nuclear negotiator under President Khatami, will be Iran’s new president. There is talk in Washington of direct US-Iran talks in light of Rouhani coming to power. Rouhani campaigned on a platform of trying to “normalize” relations with the West, and he even made statements like, “It is good to have centrifuges running, provided people’s lives and livelihoods are also running.” Given Rouhani’s stance, did the Iranian public treat these elections as a public referendum on the nuclear issue? And how did Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei interpret the results?
A: To be honest with you, I should confess that the June 14 presidential election in Iran was firstly an examination for the current of extremist rightists who believed that the country’s affairs could be managed through maintaining hostility and animosity with the Western world, prolonging the nuclear controversy, and relying on skimpy business and trade with Russia and China. The candidate of this stream, Mr. Saeed Jalili, simply attracted an insignificant minority of the votes, 11.37%. I’m not saying that succumbing to the irrational demands of the world powers is a solution to Iran’s problems, but the political parties and streams supporting Mr. Jalili, who was supposedly Dr. Rouhani’s main contender, but came third in the final vote, irresistibly believed that the nuclear standoff with the West was not something significant and crucial for the future of the country. This is while Dr. Rouhani and his massive supporters had astutely come to the conclusion that the nuclear issue was the country’s main concern and the Achilles heel that was paralyzing the country’s economy, political structure, and international stature.
As a result, Dr. Rouhani based his campaign slogans on his foreign policy priorities which included the normalization of relations with the West in general, and the United States in particular, interaction with the outside world, improving Iran’s ties with its neighboring countries and finally bringing the controversy surrounding Iran’s nuclear program to an end.
As you precisely mentioned, the recent elections in Iran have been a public referendum on the nuclear issue. Even the most ordinary Iranian citizen had recognized that the staggering inflation, unusual supply of money in the society, the skyrocketing increase in the price of consumer goods, housing and automobiles, the unprecedented devaluation of Iran’s currency, Rial, and the annoying unemployment of the educated youth all stemmed from mismanagement in Iran’s nuclear program. According to some critics of President Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy, if nuclear energy is our inalienable right, which it unquestionably is, then cheap and inexpensive foodstuff, medicine and medical services, safe and secure transportation, a renewed aviation fleet, high-speed internet connection, employment, housing, free education and proper income are our inalienable rights, as well.
As for the Supreme Leader, he doesn’t seem to be dissatisfied with the results, but of course his favorite president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is leaving the office, and after all, Dr. Hassan Rouhani is a reformist, and Ayatollah Khamenei has been traditionally unfriendly with the reform-minded politicians, unlike the late founder of Islamic Revolution Imam Khomeini.
Q: When Rouhani was Iran’s nuclear negotiator, he played a key role in reaching an agreement with France, Britain and Germany that resulted in Iran suspending its uranium enrichment program. Would Rouhani concede to freezing the country’s civilian nuclear program to ease Western pressure, despite Iran being an abiding signatory to the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty? What could the response be from the Supreme Leader if Rouhani accepts US measures that are deemed to be wholly unfavorable to Iran?
A: Well, as you may have noted, President Rouhani implied during his first press conference on June 17 that the age of suspending uranium enrichment has passed. He says this because Rouhani is not alone in making decisions about Iran’s nuclear program. We have the parliament’s (Majlis) influential Foreign Policy and National Security Committee which is consisted of a number of conservative lawmakers mostly opposed to the reformist movements in Iran who boldly and resolutely resist the decisions of the president if they wish, the state TV which is supervised by the representative of the Supreme Leader and has a great impact on the course of political developments in the country, and above all, the Supreme Leader himself, who has the final say on the most of foreign policy issues, particularly the nuclear issue and the possible direct negotiations with the United States.
So, suspending the enrichment of uranium, which is seen as an unforgivable crime in Iran, cannot be put on agenda. However, everything depends on the craftsmanship of President Rouhani who has demonstrated that as a diplomat, he is able to handle the affairs in such a way that all the disputes can be settled in a short period of time. He may give certain concession to the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, UK and the U.S.) which neither the Supreme Leader nor the parliament hardliners can criticize or deny. For example, he may accept a temporary suspension of uranium enrichment in return for the freezing of the banking and gold sanctions. As the next step, he may put forward the offer that Iran can ship a certain amount of its low-enriched uranium (LED) to France or Russia and receive fuel rods for using in Tehran Research Reactor.
This step can be reciprocated by the lifting of EU’s oil embargo against Iran. Finally, Iran can promise to suspend its 20% enrichment of uranium, and continue enriching uranium to the extent of 3.5%, as it was doing before 2003. This can be a promising and serious sign that Iran is determined to resolve the nuclear standoff. And as a reward, the United States and European Union can lift all the sanctions and move toward the full normalization of relations with Iran and settle the remaining disputes on such cases as human rights, Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S. support for the anti-Iran terrorist cult MKO. In this path, both parties should learn to forget about the past grievances and only contemplate on the future. Such an approach would guarantee Iran’s rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to have a peaceful nuclear program, and will alleviate the concerns of the international community regarding the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear activities.
Q: In the run up to the recent elections, Washington cast doubt over the legitimacy of the electoral process in Iran, while many mainstream analysts implied that these elections would somehow be controlled by the Supreme Leader, and that his candidate would surely be the winner. The opposite turned out to be true, with the only reformist being elected with a strong majority. Do you think these elections were portrayed fairly by Western media?
A: The electoral process in Iran had not been frequently challenged and questioned by the Western powers prior to the 2009 presidential election which was marred with the allegations of vote-rigging. It was surely an irretrievable damage to Iran’s public image in the world; however, we should scientifically investigate and figure out whether the reelection of President Ahmadinejad was fraudulent or not. At any rate, this was the only election in the Islamic Republic’s history which was labeled with vote-rigging, and I cannot say for sure if the allegations leveled by the West are true. Of course we had several parliamentary and presidential elections in which the reformists came to power; so it’s not the case that those who are elected are necessarily the hand-picked choices of the Supreme Leader.
At least in the 2013 election, it was demonstrated that those who undermine Iran’s electoral process have been thinking wrongfully. A reformist president was elected who certainly was not the favorite choice of the Supreme Leader. The portrayal of Iran’s presidential elections by the Western mainstream media resembles their general depiction of the Iranian society, their attitude toward the cultural, social and political developments in Iran and their viewpoint toward the Iranian lifestyle. They cannot detach themselves from the clichés which they have been parroting about Iran. This lopsided, impartial and biased portrayal of Iran has caused millions of American and European citizens to think of Iran as a retarded, uncivilized, deserted and miserable country with people who are not familiar with the representations of the modern civilization. Of course they don’t allow their audience to know that Iran is a country which had once stood atop the peaks of human civilization, science, literature and “decent” way of living…