According to this week's guest for Monday Talk, both the United States and Iran have lost opportunities due to the bad state of their relations during the past 33 years, but there is still hope to mend their ties.
"They have also suffered untold and irreparable strategic damage. Resolving these issues will open Iran's huge investment to the world and put the country on a healthy economic course, as it will also help the US to re-ignite its moribund economy. Those seeking optimization of Iran's economic potential while rejecting normalization of relations with the US are pipe-dreamers," said Hooshang Amirahmadi, an Iranian American professor of public policy at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, who declared his candidacy for the Iranian presidency last year.
Amirahmadi believes that he is the best candidate for Iran to mend relations between the two countries because he has been already working on it, and he says Iranian people would support negotiations with the US.
Iran's current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is limited to two consecutive terms. But his close ally Esfandyar Rahim Mashaei registered as a candidate for June presidential election.
Meanwhile, former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is expected to win the support of the country's reformers, registered a few minutes before an official deadline on Saturday.
More than 450 candidates have registered for presidency, but Iran's Guardian Council, a powerful group of six clergymen and six jurists controlled by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the final say on who can stand.
On this and more, Dr. Amirahmadi answered our questions.
The head of the Guardian Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, said this month that the Iranian elections are the "freest in the world." Does that give you any assurance that you will be approved by the council to qualify for the presidential candidacy?
Iran's election process is unique. When compared to elections in the United States, the United Kingdom, Turkey and other consolidated democracies, Iran's elections are not as free. But compared to elections throughout the region, at least Iran holds elections. Unfortunately, in Saudi Arabia and much of the region, elections are not held whatsoever. We believe that we should use the electoral process that exists to foster gradual change that is within the framework of the Islamic constitution. It is unclear which candidates the Guardian Council will approve. That includes me as well as many candidates who are current government officials. The fact of the matter is that very few people will know who will be approved until the Guardian Council approves them in late May. We believe that we have a chance of being approved because the Islamic Republic is desperately in need of a leader who can resolve the country's factional infighting, its conflict with the US, and its economic malaise. I am the only person who has a plan and is capable of doing so, and we are hoping that the Guardian Council recognizes this.
You had a presidential bid also in the 2005 elections and were rejected by the Guardian Council. What makes your campaign this year different that the one in 2005?
My candidacy in the 2005 presidential election was entirely different than this year's. In 2005, much of the liberal and intellectual classes decided to boycott the presidential election. As a pragmatic person, I made the case that boycotting is not an effective strategy because it will effectively hand over the election to the other side. History has proven me right, as that boycott helped to Ahmadinejad's victory. The reason I decided to submit my name as a candidate was to demonstrate on the record that I was against the boycott. I had no staff, no organization, no funding and did no campaigning. I simply registered myself in Tehran. This campaign is much more serious and is being taken much more seriously by the international community, the Islamic Republic and the Iranian people. This time, we have a hardworking campaign staff, volunteers, a comprehensive campaign platform, campaign events around the world, as well as funding.
'Next president has to be someone above factional infighting'
Why do you think you were rejected in 2005 by the council? Do they provide reasons for rejection?
I do not know, and they do not announce a reason for disqualification. In fact, when they make their announcement, they only announce the candidates who have been approved.
Are there any political factions in Iran that you align yourself with?
I have never been a member of any faction in Iran nor do I align myself with any faction. I have worked with and try to maintain cordial relationships with all of the factions. In fact, this is one of the main reasons why I am running: to reconcile the country's factional infighting. Iran has come to a point where the factions are not only rivals, but are outright enemies. This is destabilizing and harmful for the country and for the people. I believe that the next president will have to be someone who has stood above the factional infighting and is able to produce national solidarity. In this case, I am the only one who will be capable of doing so.
In various interviews in the international media you declared that your chances are better than any other candidates. What makes you think that way?
The fact that our campaign is popular in Iran was related to meetings in Iran during my last trip this April by officials and ordinary Iranians. Our Facebook pages have now over 80,000 likes and this is while we established them less than two months ago. The government also has conducted a public opinion poll that is not yet released but has been leaked to me and a few other candidates showing that my campaign is taken "very seriously" by the pollsters. Indeed, certain government officials in Tehran also told me that my campaign is taken "very seriously" by the Islamic system as well.
'I have no intention to create any disturbance in Iran'
How much interaction do you have with the Iranians in Iran? Do they know you? What reactions do you get from Iran for your campaign -- both from officials and the public?
Over my entire life, including the time I lived in Iran as well as in the United States, I have maintained an interaction with Iranians in Iran. Much of my family lives there, I still own a residence there and I have travelled back and forth countless times throughout the years. I remain deeply connected to the country. Iranians have known about me as someone who has pushed for decades for reconciliation between the United States and Iran. I have appeared as a guest on Persian-language television stations many times and participated in conferences in Iran. Fortunately, through our groundbreaking campaign, tens of thousands of Iranians are quickly learning about our campaign and me. In fact, our Persian-language Facebook page has gained over 45,000 likes in under two months. In addition, some of our supporters have created their own supporters page that gained over 20,000 likes in just two weeks. This puts us well ahead of our expected competition. The reactions I get from Iranians are by and large positive. While I was in the country last month, I was approached by many Iranians both young and old who recognized me and said they support my campaign and had liked me on Facebook. In terms of officials inside the country, they are taking this campaign very seriously. They believe that this campaign has the potential to be co-opted by people who intend to create a disturbance. I have been in contact with some of them and want to make it clear that I have no intention to create any disturbance in the country. I simply want to run as a legal presidential candidate within the framework of the country's constitution.
As I understand, you are going to Iran at least once a year. When are you planning to go back? Have you ever had difficulties about entry into Iran because of your US citizenship?
I travel freely back and forth to Iran. The last time I was there was in April. At this point, it is not clear when I will go to Iran next. Fortunately, whether we are in Iran or outside the country, we are able to reach the Iranian people through traditional as well as social media. Obviously, if I am approved to stand for vote, I will immediately return and start public campaigning in the country.
'Green Movement idea survives, but too weak to make difference'
What relations do you have with Iran's reformist leaders?
My relations with reformist leaders are cordial. I support their views as they are in most cases similar to mine. However, I do not think their political approach is correct. In particular, they have been a bit too monopolistic and self-serving, wishing to reform the system while keeping the secular and religious rivals in the periphery of politics.
What is the current situation of the Green Movement in Iran?
The Green Movement survives as an idea, but it is too weak as a movement to make a difference at this time. Iranian middle-class and educated professionals, who made up the backbone of the movement, continue to aspire for change and will continue to demand change as long as it has not arrived in a meaningful form. I am sure at some future point, the demand for change will get organized again into a movement, but that may not be the same as the Green Movement as we know it.
You don't think highly of American policies toward Iran and said once that "on the table there is no carrot anymore. Only a huge pile of sticks." Would you elaborate on this idea?
The problem with the Barack Obama administration's "dual track" policy is that it has emphasized the single track of sanctions, isolation, pressure, covert action and cyber-warfare. It has not focused enough on the other track of diplomatic engagement to solve the outstanding issues between the two countries. This is something for which I have advocated for 30 years and will continue to push for. This is not to suggest, however, that the blame lies entirely in Washington. Tehran also has a long way to go in its strategy for dealing with the United States. I have long maintained that the core issue between the two countries is "the Islamic Revolution." After 34 years, the United States needs to come to terms with the fact that Iran is a revolutionary state with an Islamic Republic as its government. At the same time, Iran needs to restructure its revolutionary policy toward the United States.
The 1979 revolution explicitly stood against imperialism and identified the US as the world's imperialist or Great Satan. The time has come for Iran to move away from this revolutionary foreign policy and instead set its policy with the United States based on what its own national interests are. As the country begins to undergo this gradual process, it will realize that normal relations with the US are in its interest. It is in Iran's interests to have economic sanctions removed, reduce the level of tension with the United States throughout the region and reintegrate fully with the global economy. All of this will require normal relations with the US, and, as a peace advocate of 30 years, I can be instrumental in this process.
'Despite threats, two countries see how costly war would be'
You recalled in a media interview that some years ago your daughter asked why Iran and the United States couldn't get along. What was your response to your daughter?
I told her that usually revolutionary governments and the US do not get along easily and that it will take time for them to come together. Specifically, the first-generation leaders of revolutions usually stick to their dogma and the US will not soften to them as long as they are so dogmatic. Only after revolutions soften and change direction, the US becomes available to them for serious talk and breakthrough in relations. We may be approaching such a stage in US-Iran relations. Only time can solve the problem as it brings with it "generational change."
You've been working for years on the area of creating a bridge of understanding between Iran and the United States. How hopeful are you about construction of that bridge?
I am an eternal optimist and I believe that one of the many benefits of this current groundbreaking presidential campaign is that we are laying the foundation for that bridge. Despite all of the threats and the lingering possibility of war, the two countries are aware of how costly a war would be as well as how beneficial normal relations would be. They need the help of motivated people to achieve peaceful relations. It may not happen this year, but in the long run I believe that bridge will be completed.
What ideas do you have for the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States?
Specifically, the Islamic Republic sees the US through the prism of its Islamic Revolution, believing that it is a "wolf" bent on destroying the "sheep," i.e., Iran. Meanwhile the US views Iran as an "evil state" bent on harming its interests, Israel and other allies. Acting on wrong grounds, Tehran has adopted a policy of confrontation and Washington has applied a policy of sanctions, isolation, destabilization and support for the Iranian opposition movement. Thus, it is no wonder that the US-Iran conflict has been on a downward spiral, where even good intentions by one side have often been met with negative reactions by the other.
My plan for normalization of US-Iran relations, in consultation with the supreme leader, will be built on breaking through the deadlock by building trust between the two nations, beginning with a correction of the perceptions and analyses. To this end, I will propose introducing a short truce period to allow for re-evaluating mutual understandings, listening to voices of reason and trying a set of confidence-building measures. I will propose the truce following approval by the Iranian Parliament. Thereafter, Iran and the US will agree to simultaneously announce that they are willing to mend relations, circumstances permitting. Next, the US and Iran will continue negotiations toward partial normalization of relations.
'Iranian people would support negotiations with US'
Would Iranian people support these negotiations?
The Iranian people will definitely support these negotiations. According to many opinion polls, a large majority of Iranians, while critical of US policies, see normalizing relations with that country as one of their main priorities. Fortunately, the majority of political forces in Iran have also recognized, albeit belatedly, the importance of normalization, although a small number of Iranians on the extreme fringes of politics are opposed to this.
During the past three decades, Iran has maintained a policy of "neither war nor peace" with the United States. That policy has now lost much ground as the US increasingly moves towards choosing between regime change and war. Only a slight chance remains for mending relations and I am determined to utilize the small window of opportunity that remains. Under these circumstances, where concern for national security and territorial integrity of Iran increasingly finds objective grounds, removing the danger through normalization of relations with the US has become more urgent than ever. As my past achievements in this area indicate, I will be in the best position to use the opportunity to resolve the US-Iran dispute in the best interests of both nations.
What would both nations gain from normalizing their relations?
During the past 33 years of US-Iran relations, both nations have lost trillions of dollars in real accounting terms and opportunity cost; they have also suffered untold and irreparable strategic damage. Resolving these issues will open Iran's huge investment to the world and put the country on a healthy economic course, as it will also help the US to re-ignite its moribund economy. Those seeking optimization of Iran's economic potential while rejecting normalization of relations with the US are pipe-dreamers. However, to benefit the nation, relations must be put on a solid foundation. Countries have had three types of relations with the US: fascination with and servitude to it; anti-Americanism and hostility towards it; and a balanced relationship with the US, based on mutual interests and national independence. Iran's relations with the US have historically fluctuated between the first two extreme types. During my past 25 years of efforts for improving US-Iran relations, I have learned that it is indeed possible to build a more democratic relationship between Iran and the US.
'Is domestic uranium enrichment in Iran's national interest?'
Do you think Iran should have nuclear enrichment facilities?
Iran certainly has the right to uranium enrichment and peaceful nuclear activity as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). I would never give up this right as president of Iran. However, I would have to seriously consider in consultation with my advisors and other officials whether domestic uranium enrichment is in the national interest or not. If we decide that it is good for Iran to produce low-enriched uranium domestically, then we will continue to do so within the framework of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) safeguards agreement. I would also be open to signing the Additional Protocol to ensure to the IAEA Iran's peaceful intentions. If we decide that it is better for Iran to acquire low-enriched uranium (LEU) from abroad through a deal with the P5+1, then we could do that as well.
'Unless US accepts Iran's revolution is real, nuclear issue will not be resolved'
According to the news reports, the European Union's top diplomat Catherine Ashton will meet chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in İstanbul on May 15 in a fresh effort to defuse international concern on Tehran's disputed nuclear drive. You know former negotiations in Almaty failed. Do you think there is hope for a solution now?
No, I do not. The problem with these talks is that they are not dealing with the core issue between the United States and Iran -- the Islamic Revolution -- and believe that the US is bent to destroy the Islamic system. The nuclear issue happens to be the current issue between the two countries, but it is not at the core. If the nuclear issue was solved, then they would fight over Hezbollah and Hamas, or human rights, or Israel, or so forth. Rather, the core issue is that the United States has not yet accepted the fact that Iran is a revolutionary state; the US has not yet accepted the Islamic Revolution. At the same time, Iran continues to view the United States as an imperialistic country through the lens of the Islamic Revolution.
Until Iran begins to change the lens with which it views the United States, and until the US accepts that Iran's revolution is real, the nuclear issue will not be resolved. Once those broader changes take place, however, it will be very simple to solve the nuclear issue. Dozens of countries around the world are enriching uranium without any problems with the international community. The formula for solving this issue is that Iran should retain its right to peaceful domestic uranium enrichment, while following through on the safeguards and obligations that are required under the NPT.
'Iran, US miss to recognize Turkish role'
What do you think about Turkey's role in solving the problem related to international concerns on Tehran's nuclear program?
I think Turkey has taken proper views and leadership in this area, but unfortunately both Iran and the US have missed recognizing the significance of Turkish role. I must also add that Turkey's involvement in Syria became a source of disappointment in Tehran, making the Turkish role in US-Iran relations less relevant. I believe the Iranian side should have been more realistic about Turkey's role in Syria and that the two sides should have worked more closely to find a realistic solution to the Syrian question. I think there is still time for such an approach and hope that Tehran and Ankara will coordinate their regional policies more and better as the two nations are the corner stone of regional stability and prosperity.
'Ahmadinejad makes threats at times'
What is your reaction to the news reports that have claimed that Iranian President Ahmedinejad was arrested this week and warned against releasing information that could prove damaging to the country's Islamic regime?
I am skeptical of the news. It has not been verified by any source inside or outside the country. President Ahmadinejad has been threatening to make public certain damaging information about unknown leaders of the Islamic Republic. At times, he has even released some information about a few, e.g., the Larijani family. However, I doubt he will go beyond the threat at this time -- the most sensitive election time in Iran.
He is a professor and former director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University. He holds a PhD from Cornell University and is the founder and president of the American Iranian Council. He is also a senior associate member at Oxford University in the UK. His publications include "The Political Economy of Iran under the Qajars: Society, Politics, Economics and Foreign Relations 1796-1926," "Revolution and Economic Transition: The Iranian Experience" and three other books in Persian on civil society, industrial policy and the geopolitics of energy. Dr. Amirahmadi is also editor of 10 books on Iran and the Middle East, and several conference proceedings on US-Iran relations, as well as numerous journal articles.