Photo: Getty Images; Illustration by Bloomberg View
Photo: Getty Images; Illustration by Bloomberg View

This week’s presidential election in Iran could be easily dismissed as a charade. Just eight of almost 700 candidates were permitted to run, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have declared even the words “free and fair election” to be a U.S.-inspired call to sedition.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has stage-managed the vote, determined to block candidates who might challenge his authority or, worse, trigger unrest like that which marked President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rigged re-election in 2009.

Yet who wins matters, both to Iranians and the world. This is why, even though turnout will be lower than in 2009, probably a greater percentage of Iranians will vote in their managed presidential vote on June 14 than Americans do in their free ones.

The peculiar nature of Iran’s thwarted democracy has been evident in the campaign’s televised debates, especially the one on foreign policy. The debate exploded into life over how to conduct negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program with the so-called P5+1 -- China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S.

Three presidential candidates have been involved in the nuclear talks: Saeed Jalili, a hardline conservative and cipher for Khamenei, is the current chief nuclear negotiator for Iran; Hassan Rohani, the only nonconservative still in the race, was chief negotiator when, in 2003, Iran agreed to suspend its nuclear enrichment program; and Ali Akbar Velayati, who is now Khamenei’s chief foreign policy adviser.

Changing Tactics

In the debate, Jalili defended his serial rejection of P5+1 proposals as “resistance” to pressure from the U.S. and its allies. Any concessions on Iran’s part would show weakness and yield nothing, he said. Rohani and even Velayati excoriated Jalili for his nuclear anti-diplomacy, saying it condemned the Iranian economy to collapse. Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a leading candidate seen as more of a manager than an ideologue, may also take a more practical approach to negotiations, albeit one that sticks to Khamenei’s bottom line.

The U.S. seems concerned mainly with distancing itself from this flawed Iranian election process. No doubt the administration is still smarting from 2009, when it shamefully failed to speak out in support of the democratic aspirations of Iran’s Green Movement. This learned skepticism is fine, but the U.S. and other P5+1 members could learn some useful lessons from the campaign debates.

First, they suggest that Iranians will vote primarily based on the economy. Khamenei no doubt approved candidates steeped in the nuclear issue because he hoped to draw support for his position of “resistance” to the U.S., and Jalili is widely thought to be the supreme leader’s preferred choice for the presidency. Yet the impact of the nuclear issue on the economy dominated the debate.

The nuclear file is unquestionably under Khamenei’s control. But history makes it clear that the president can shape the tone and direction of Iran’s negotiating position. Velayati’s statements suggest room for change.

Second, all candidates agree that any deal must confirm Iran’s right to enrich uranium for civilian use under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. This is a matter of national pride for most Iranians. The P5+1 should concede that under any deal, Iran will have the right to produce uranium enriched up to 5 percent for power generation. The talks should focus instead on securing the removal of all Iranian nuclear fuel enriched above that level, as well as intrusive international monitoring of Iran’s program.

Revising Sanctions

Third, Iran’s election debate should serve as a reminder that sanctions never work -- until suddenly they do. The current, increased restrictions have forced Iran back to the negotiating table and triggered debate in the top circles of the regime about the costs and benefits of refusing to compromise. Velayati, who has taken a hard line on the nuclear issue in the past, wouldn’t have attacked Iran’s current strategy unless he thought Khamenei was open to debate.

The campaign also shows that one of the main values of sanctions is as a bargaining chip. The U.S. Congress, in particular, should stop piling on additional sanctions, which suggests no interest in a deal, and the P5+1 should clearly explain which sanctions will disappear in exchange for Iranian concessions.

Finally, while the U.S. and other countries should of course highlight the flaws in Iran’s managed election, they should also recognize that Iranians are being given a choice that matters -- and respond to it. If Jalili loses, and Qalibaf or, more dramatically, Rohani is allowed to win, this should be a signal to redouble efforts on the nuclear talks.

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