Foreign policy is front and center in the Iranian electoral debate. It’s clear from countless discussions I’ve had in Tehran this week that many Iranians blame Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for isolating Iran, creating a needless confrontation with the United States, provoking a harsh set of economic sanctions that has crippled Iran’s oil, aviation, and computer/IT industries.
Those Iranians want the next president, whoever he is–and all signs continue to suggest that Mir Hossein Mousavi will be the winner–to make restoring Iran’s relations with the United States a top priority.
Of course, that might be difficult.
I spent much of Wednesday morning in discussions at the Iranian foreign ministry. For two hours, I spoke with Ali Akbar Rezaie, the director-general of the ministry’s office responsible for North America. He credits President Obama for his efforts in Cairo and elsewhere to put an end to the “civilizational” conflict between the West and Islam. “Compared to anything we’ve heard in the last 30 years, and especially in the last eight years, his words were very different,” he says. “People in the region received the speech, from this angle, very positively, with sympathy.”
He seemed to hint that the election would set the stage for a real Iran-US dialogue. “After the election we will be in a better position to manage relations with the United States. We’ll be at the beginning of a new four-year period, and the political framework will be clear.”
But the devil is in the details, he suggests. On the nuclear issue, the biggest stumbling block so far, he says that Obama was, well, fuzzy. While Obama said that Iran has the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy, he said nothing–either way–about Iran’s right to enrich uranium on Iranian soil. From Iran’s point of view, says Rezaie, the fact that Obama didn’t rule out (or condemn) the possibility of an Iran-based enrichment program is a good sign. “But it is still vague for us. It is not clear whether he omitted that point intentionally or not. We don’t know what he has in mind.”
Of course, negotiating the details of a solution to this thorny problem is precisely the point. During my visit, a number of well-connected Iranians have said that if the United States creates a hospitable climate for relations beween the two countries–for instance, were Obama to stop saying that “all options are on the table” including military action–the whole process might move forward more easily. “From a technical point of view, there are many things that both sides can talk about, but those points won’t tabled as long as there isn’t enough political will, on both sides,” says Rezaie. “I understand it’s difficult to define the right level of political will, but it should be enough to convince the other side that it is serious. So far we have seen good words [from Obama], but it’s not enough yet.”