Official Washington is laying low and saying little as tectonic plates appear to be shifting in the run-up to Iran's presidential elections, to be held Friday.
Despite dramatic images this week of the largest campaign demonstrations taking place in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, including a human chain of as many as a million supporters for former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leading opposition candidate, the Obama administration has remained largely silent. The last thing officials want to do is say anything to jinx a process underway in Iran whose outcome is entirely outside of their control -- and yet may ease one of their most pressing challenges.
A Mousavi win would not mean smooth sailing for Washington's efforts to engage Iran, analysts caution. It could deepen fissures in the Iranian leadership or even prompt a hard-line backlash or crackdown that could further paralyze U.S. efforts to engage Iran, they say. But the voting out of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would undoubtedly be seen in Washington and the West as a welcome sign that the Iranian public supports greater liberalization and a less hostile attitude toward the West.
"We are committed to direct diplomacy with whatever government emerges," a U.S. official said Wednesday on condition of anonymity. The administration is "being tight-lipped on this one," he acknowledged, noting that some planned interviews on the issue had been shut down out of apparent sensitivity to concerns that Iranian hard-liners could portray them as evidence of U.S. meddling, a sensitive issue in Iran.
"We take what we get," a White House official said Monday, seeking to downplay the import of the outcome of Iran's polls. "It's clear the Iranian president has limited influence, either for better or for worse," he said. "So even were Ahmadinejad to lose, there will not suddenly be flowers blooming" in Washington's efforts to engage Iran.
"They have nothing to gain by suggesting that they favor any outcome," explained Brookings Institution Iran expert Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department policy planning official, referring to the U.S. government. "One can't plan for what the outcome will be," Maloney added. "It will be decided for us. What impact it has on the process for negotiations [between Washington and Tehran] will play out for weeks, if not months."
"It's not simply that the outcome is unpredictable," Maloney continued. "It's that the impact is not wholly straightforward. You could have a reformist win that revives a power struggle that returns the Iranian position on engagement to one dominated by paralysis."
Asked if the political status quo in Iran has already led to paralysis on reciprocating U.S. outreach, Maloney responded, "You don't have factions really battling each other over America right now. Because [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei has endorsed the idea of talks, even Ahmadinejad has advanced the idea of talks. [The issue is] not the same kind of political football as during the Khatami presidency." (Moderate cleric's Mohammed Khatami's surprise win in Iran's 1997 presidential elections initially ushered in a period of reforms, liberalization and civil liberties in Iran but was soon overshadowed by assassination of regime critics and crackdowns on student protests as hard-liners pushed back against what they saw as threats to the system.)
Four presidential candidates are running in Iran's presidential elections, scheduled for Friday June 12 (read FP's primer on the candidates here). If no clear winner gains a simple majority, then it would go to a second-round runoff between the top two candidates on June 19.
Some analysts are now saying events seem to be moving so quickly that Mousavi might win in a first round. "Something is happening, without a doubt," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council Tuesday. "I promised myself not to get excited, and I really don't want to overstate it. But it may just be one round, with Ahmadinejad losing, which was unthinkable two weeks ago."
The turning point, analysts say, was a series of unprecedented televised presidential debates, the first ever in Iran, that began June 3 and were watched by an estimated 40 million Iranians. But there have been other remarkable events as well, including the mass demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of supporters for rival candidates and the human chain on Tehran's main freeway, Ahmadinejad pulling out an intelligence file during his presidential debate with Mousavi, accusing Mousavi's wife of having bypassed entrance exams to get into a Ph.D. program, and a stunning letter yesterday from former Iranian President Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani imploring the supreme leader for clean elections and to muzzle Ahmadinejad's attacks. Ahmadinejad has accused Rafsanjani and his sons of corruption, as well as of being behind efforts to mobilize opposition against his reelection.
"[I]t would be a mistake to read [Rafsanjani's letter] as an act of a man defending himself against accusations by a reckless candidate who wants to be reelected at all costs," wrote Mehdi Semati, an Iran expert at Eastern Illinois University to a Gulf-oriented listserv. "Rafsanjani is saying what many people in Iran are thinking: Ahmadinejad, in effect, has questioned the entire 30-year history of the revolution, since he has depicted Mousavi's era, Rafsanjani's era, and then Khatami's era as corrupt to the core. For most educated observers in Iran, this has caused a crisis of legitimacy for the IRI [Islamic Republic of Iran]. It has caused many religious and conservative folks with commitments to the revolution to express concern.
"It is possible that Rafsanjani is subtly reminding the supreme leader and others that there is such a thing as Assembly of Experts, a body headed by Rafsanjani, whose job it is to appoint the supreme leader," Semati added.
Although it's the economy -- and not foreign policy - that dominates Iran's campaign debates, Semati told Foreign Policy, "The nice thing about the complaints against Ahmadinejad -- that he is reckless, adventurist, incompetent, angry, etc. -- is that the voters then see why his performance in the foreign policy arena is, by implication even when it is not explicitly stated, jeopardizing the IRI," Semati said. "Rafsanjani has tapped into this anxiety with his letter, and I believe it is shared by many across the political spectrum. The Holocaust denial is widely believed to have damaged Iranian nation's dignity, respect, and standing in the world. It is one thing Mousavi and [fellow candidate Mehdi] Karroubi mentioned early on."
Semati said that a campaign video by another presidential candidate, former Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Mohsen Rezai, "was a blistering attack on Ahmadinejad's style, competence, and wisdom ... One of the statement's that struck me in this video was that Rezai, through years of his military experience, knows war is hell ... and he will do all that he can to avoid it. .... I think the ball is in the supreme leader's corner." Rezai is expected to drain some votes away from Ahmadinejad among hawkish voters.
Maloney cautioned not to underestimate Ahmadinejad's sophistication and the appeal to his core constituency -- the Revolutionary Guard, elements of the rural poor, who he has doled money out to, and some conservative Islamist traditionalists -- as well as the obvious benefits of running as the incumbent. "He controls the elections headquarters," Maloney said. "He doles money out in ways that help his chances. And he's not as much of a rube as outside analysts tend to believe. He's very sophisticated. His rhetoric appeals to his core constituency. The roadblock for him is if he can play around the edges of that."
Other Washington Iran watchers said they were already anticipating a Mousavi victory -- as well as the complications of a power struggle within the regime over a reformist win. "People are anxiously hopeful because they don't want to repeat the Khatami experience," said Mariam Memarsadeghi, an Iranian American who has advised Washington NGOs on Middle East civil society programs. But she observed differences with the Khatami era too. "Reading the vibes from the demonstrations, I would think people are getting this excited because they hope and plan and think that this level of mobilization will be there post-election. Unlike the Khatami era, they are not so much behind the person [of Mousavi], as behind their own demands."
Demands for what? "Liberalization, a more forward thinking government, they want civil liberties -- they want the whole gamut," Memarsadeghi said. "But they can't have the whole gamut in ... the system as it is. That's the Catch 22. That would be the real change: If the mobilization of the people and the elections causes internal fissures within the regime to grow deeper."
But such internal fissures could paralyze a political system that needs a certain level of consensus to function, according to Parsi. "[The Iranian leadership] may simply be too divided and involved in trying to heal rifts to be able to deal with the United States," he said.
The campaign itself may have already made returning to the Ahmadinejad-era status quo untenable. "It will be very difficult for the hard-liners to put this genie back in the bottle I think," one U.S. Iran hand said on condition of anonymity Tuesday.
"There is every evidence that Ahmadinejad has now dug himself in so deeply that he won't be able to crawl out," said veteran former NSC Iran hand Gary Sick, who writes a blog on Iran issues and teaches at Columbia University. "Rafsanjani's letter ... is unique in the history of the IRI. I have no idea how all of this will play out, but I think it is a turning point in the revolution, since it really goes to the heart of the role of the leader."
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