An Iranian-American college professor hopes to be Iran's next president. But the motivation for Hooshang Amirahmadi's quixotic campaign is to re-establish trust between the United States and Iran.
In a weeklong registration process that ended Saturday, presidential candidates registered at the Ministry of Interior, where the Guardian Council -- the most influential clerical body in Iran that operates under the watchful eyes of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei -- will assess and announce whom it deems to be qualified nominees in the coming week.
"The biggest challenge right now is the lack of trust, a trust that over time, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has been diminished to zero." Amirahmadi considers trust key to building the future of Iran while re-establishing relations with the United States.
For more three decades Amirahmadi has lived in both the United States and Iran. An economist and scholar, he joined Rutgers University in 1983, where he's currently a professor of planning and international development. Amirahmadi's career took a more public turn in 1997 when he founded the American Iranian Council, a think tank that provides a base for research, analysis and dialogue between the U.S. and Iran.
This would be Amirahmadi's second attempt to enter Iran's presidential election. In 2005 the Guardian Council rejected his candidacy.
If he is rejected, Amirahmadi said this election won't end his decade-long efforts for change.
"I'm building a political organization that will work with others for a better Iran -- an Iran that's friendly with U.S., has a solid economy and democracy, and ultimately an Iran that belongs to the international community."
Amirahmadi is known among many Iranian-Americans in the United States as well as people inside Iran.
"I've heard him talk a lot in satellite programs broadcasting from the U.S.; he used to be very outspoken during President (Mohammad) Khatami's time -- but then what? Nothing happened during (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad," said Mehdi, a student activist in Iran who did not want his last name used.
"I'm sure even if he runs 100 more times, he's going to get rejected by the Guardian Council. It's very obvious the Guardian Council will disqualify him, so really, I don't think there's any difference."
Mehdi participated in the post-election protests four years ago and thinks this election will be another "game" like that of 2009.
As sanctions continue to cripple the Iranian economy and the United States and its allies remain wary of the Islamic regime's unclear nuclear ambitions, Amirahmadi sees himself as a broker. In an April visit to Iran, Amirahmadi met with some intelligence officials and members of the Guardian Council and discussed his candidacy.
"I have been established as someone who can be trusted; I have been always honest and transparent and have been known as a neutral broker -- one who has been able to re-establish the broken trust and dialogue needed to build Iran-U.S. problems," Amirahmadi said.
Amirahmadi discussed his close relations with almost all of Iran's senior government officials as well as his strong association with senior U.S. officials through AIC, saying he has worked with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, current Secretary of State John Kerry and former Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering. Amirahmadi says, "There will never be a resolution to the nuclear issue, the terror issue, the Israel issue, unless there is trust, and I know I can deliver that challenge."
Pickering also finds these issues important, saying, "it's always important when efforts are put into developing dialogue for the betterment of U.S.-Iran relations." Pickering is also an honorary board member of AIC.
But Farideh Farhi, an author and scholar on Iranian and comparative politics, says Iran-U.S. relations are too volatile for any one person to accomplish much. "If anything were to happen, it needs to be through direct talks between the two governments," she said.
"All these people who have come to act as mediators in this process have really not been able to place things in the directions that they should go," said Farhi, an independent scholar who is on the graduate faculty at the University of Hawaii. She said that given Amirahmadi's likely disqualification by the Guardian Council, the focus should be on what happens inside Iran.
"There were moments where Dr. Amirahmadi had strong influence during President Khatami, Clinton and Secretary Albright, but I don't see it at this point," Farhi said.
In March 2000, Amirahmadi's efforts at the American Iranian Council led Albright to deliver a historic speech on Iran in which she expressed regret about the U.S.-backed 1953 coup and past U.S. policy. She also helped lift sanctions on carpets and food items and offered Iran a global settlement that would have restored almost all commercial ties between the two countries. But after then-President Bill Clinton left office, the George W. Bush administration did not carry out the initiative.
In August of that year, Albright's move was regarded by then-President Mohammad Khatami as "a missed opportunity" to normalize relations between the two countries.
Former Sen. J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, who was chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and is an AIC board member, commends Amirahmadi's work and suggests that the Islamic regime and Khamenei -- who is the ultimate keyholder to all decisions -- is not ready to have an Iranian-American in the game.
Johnston acknowledges the lack of trust and direct dialogue between the two countries, but says, "There is some hope that after the election Iran would engage with the U.S. in a serious way on the nuclear issue. We know they won't do it before the election, but whether they will after the election is the big question."
A rocky political landscape
Factions, intense competition and lack of transparency divide Iran's current political landscape. Amirahmadi calls this "an out-of-control power struggle" in which conservatives and moderates are on the margins and "conflict is tearing the regime apart among various internal factions from the right and the newly formed coalitions."
Farhi said the central issue of the election is about how to better manage Iran's economy in the face of crippling sanctions.
"The main campaign slogans are competence and prudence, I assume developed in reaction to what is deemed as Ahmadinejad's somewhat erratic and bombastic management of the country," she said.
Farhi also believes management of the economy is connected to the question of whether Iran can exercise its foreign policy in a way "so as to mollify the external forces that are intent on further isolation and squeezing of Iran." But "the focus is mostly on tactical shifts and not a major overhaul of Iran's approach to the nuclear (issue) or foreign policy."
Players in the election
While the two faces of the 2009 Green Movement and reform -- Mehdi Karrubi and Mir Hossein Moussavi -- remain under house arrest, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's last-minute registration on Saturday changed the face of the election. He entered the Ministry of Interior in Tehran minutes before registration closed at 6 p.m. and announced his candidacy, a move that was immediately attacked by a hardliner candidate: Ali-Akbar Velayati, who said Hashemi Rafsanjani did not back Khamenei during the 2009 post-election upheaval.
Khatami, a recognized reformist, is Hashemi Rafsanjani's strongest ally and is popular among with the Iranian people. Hashemi Rafsanjani is one of Iran's most powerful politicians and the fourth president of the Islamic Regime, and a member of the Assembly of Experts.
"Hashemi changed the entire setup of the election. He weighed his options, held up Khamenei's move and waited for everyone else and every other group to sign up and then register," said Ali Akbar Mousavi-Khoeini, a former member of Iran's parliament who actively supported reform and was ultimately arrested in 2006.
"Hashemi played a great cat-and-mouse game with the Supreme Leader, who will now calculate his maneuver and pick his favorite candidate, directly based upon this move," Khoeini said.
Another move Saturday complicated matters even more: Ahmadinejad arrived at the Ministry of Interior with Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei -- Ahmadinejad's hopeful replacement whose vice presidency was publicly rejected by the Supreme Leader earlier this year. Guardian Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei condemned Ahmadinejad's move as "illegal" on Sunday.
In the midst of this factionalism, Saeed Jalili, a conservative and Iran's top nuclear negotiator, suddenly decided to also register for the June 14 election.
Yet, at this point no one knows whom Khamenei will choose to run against Hashemi and Ahmadinejad's choice.
"It's a mess," Amirahmadi said. "This election has now turned into a factional mess. Even in Iranian standards this is an internal and factional fight. No matter who comes out of this game now, others will tear him apart whenever he wants to make a move, and the nuclear issue will be locked because of this internal war that has now been created between Ahmadinejad, Khamenei and Hashemi Rafsanjani's teams."
But Mousavi-Khoeini, who now lives in Washington and is an outspoken human rights activist and expert on Iran politics, says that with respect to the nuclear negotiations and relations with the U.S., "It is obvious that Khamenei prefers someone from his camp rather than of Hashemi's -- because most certainly Hashemi Rafsanjani will work toward creating relations with the U.S. and address not only the nuclear situation but also the crisis caused by sanctions."
Government controlling flow of information
Mousavi-Khoeini believes it is too soon to project an uprising similar to those that followed the 2009 elections, but he thinks protests could break out this week as each candidate and faction tries to fight for nomination.
The regime has implemented the first phase of its "national Internet," an effort to control the flow of information going in and out of the country. This could disconnect the Iranian people from the World Wide Web at any given time and bring their connection speed down to a crawl.
"For the past month, the government has been controlling the speed of Internet and filtering global websites such as Yahoo, Gmail, Facebook and any other sites outside of those approved by the government," Mousavi-Khoeini said.
He added that "this allows the regime to control who enters what sites and what's being discussed and exchanged, therefore disabling the slightest potential for movement and mobilization," suggesting that once again, the Iranian people will have little access to the free flow of information both between each other and with the outside world.
As the election shapes up to mark a pivotal point in Iran's domestic and foreign affairs, possibly leading to nuclear negotiations, Amirahmadi is still keen on the potential prospect of negotiation and dialogue.
"I'm a true Iranian nationalist and at the same time I'm as nationalist about the U.S. as anyone can be. I don't belong to any faction or group, and ultimately believe all of Iran's problems can be solved if only the Iran-U.S. issue is resolved — because the common interest between the Iranian people and Iran and the United States far outweigh their differences."