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As the Islamic Republic of Iran approaches its eleventh presidential election, the conflicting impulses that have shaped its 34-year life are once again manifest. The constitutional mandate to hold regular elections, whose competitiveness helps legitimize the Islamic Republic and deepen the allegiance of its citizens to the Islamic system, is again confronted with the need to place limitations on the contest in order to prevent the candidacies of those branded as “outsiders.”
- The State Department, working closely with other U.S. government agencies, should begin preparing detailed responses to different election outcomes. Despite the closed nature of the electoral process, elections are important moments in Iran. While the establishment might ensure the victory of its preferred candidate, the importance of political competition to the conduct of the elections should not be ignored. Previous reactions to electoral results have been inconsistent and tied too closely to other political considerations, such as nuclear negotiations.
- Devote greater attention to the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed. The UN Human Rights Council voted overwhelmingly in favor of extending Shaheed’s term in March, a sign that the UN hopes to focus attention on human rights in the months before and after the presidential elections. The U.S. should push the Council to strengthen Shaheed’s mandate beyond the mere “moral authority” he has now. One option could involve encouraging the Council to pressure Iran to allow Shaheed to visit during or after the elections.
- Avoid using deadlines and military threats to signal the urgency of a diplomatic settlement. The timing of the talks that began in Almaty, Kazakhstan, is important. Tehran’s agreement to engage in negotiations before the presidential election suggests that the current leadership wishes to take the nuclear talks, and broader relations with the United States, out of domestic politics. But even if the continuation of talks is just a maneuver on the part of Tehran to bring temporary calm for electoral purposes, it is still helpful in undercutting the excuse for securitizing the county and accusing critics of government policies of being engaged in sedition on behalf of Western governments.
- Suspend the “pressure track” and offer genuine sanctions relief in negotiations with the Iranian government. There are voices, particularly in the Iranian Diaspora, that believe suspending pressure for the sake of nuclear talks will be construed as a reluctance on the part of the U.S. to hasten regime change. But in the more likely case of the regime’s survival, suspending pressures and threats and engaging in a give and take process will allow forces of reform more room to maneuver and influence. Suspending pressure may not have a direct impact. Even if it does, the results may not be evident immediately. No country in the world can liberalize or de-securitize in the face of physical threat, and Iran is no exception. It should be evident that a destabilized or further securitized Islamic Republic neither benefits the voices of change in Iran nor serves the interests of the United States.