Iran's "Moderate" Election

Lots of Westerners are happy about Mohammad Khatami’s presidential candidacy in Iran. But they’re wrong to think he’ll change Tehran’s foreign policy.

If stopping Iran from getting nuclear-weapons capability remains a priority for the Obama administration, the announcement that former-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami will challenge Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this summer for his job must be viewed with huge skepticism. Khatami represents the smiling face of Iranian reformers. He is known as a "moderate," primarily because he has a more lax attitude towards social issues, such as women's dress. But on the fundamentals of the Iranian Revolution he is a hard-liner. Khatami adheres to the basic thesis that Iran must remain true to its revolutionary principles and that the constitutional mechanism-the so-called Velayat-e Faqih, whereby the supreme leader is appointed by clerics, not voted for by the people-remains in place. Khatami has also made it clear that Iran has a right to develop nuclear technology. Given the current progress Tehran is making in this field, it will have nuclear weapons-capable technology in a matter of years, if not sooner.

Vice President Joe Biden, speaking at the annual Munich Security Conference this past weekend, stated: "We will be willing to talk to Iran, and to offer a very clear choice: continue down your current course and there will be pressure and isolation; abandon the illicit nuclear program and your support for terrorism and there will be meaningful incentives." This policy implies bigger sticks as well as bigger carrots. The new "sticks"-short of military force-will include much tougher economic and financial sanctions, with Europe doing far more than it has to date to reduce its own trade with Iran.

However, if Khatami were elected-and given the dissent and anger towards Ahmadinejad and the terrible shape of the Iranian economy, he has a chance-it would take a lot of pressure off Europe and Japan for increasing sanctions against Iran. Their predisposition will invariably be to give Khatami an opportunity to show that he is willing to be more flexible than Ahmadinejad in negotiating a solution to the nuclear crisis.

The problem is Khatami is not the key player here-it's the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Until there's sound evidence that the supreme leader has changed his views on the nuclear policy, a Khatami election, however welcome to the oppressed people of Iran, may create more problems for the United States. Ahmadinejad has been a poster child for everything that is wrong with Iranian foreign policy so that it has been easy to rally support for tighter sanctions on Iran. There is no indication at this point that the nuclear program will slow down under a Khatami presidency. Those who welcome the announcement of his candidacy are correct that it will lead to an exciting presidential race. But those who think it will change the fundamental confrontation on the nuclear issue are probably wrong.


Geoffrey Kemp is the Director of Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center.