National Security

Iranian Presidential Election Offers Limited Options

Radio Free Europe correspondent: ‘the choice is between bad and worse’

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad / AP

Iranians will have few good options in the country’s June 14 presidential election, according to Radio Free Europe correspondent and Iran expert Golnaz Esfandiari.

Iranian dissidents who are tired of living under an oppressive and extremist government have little to be optimistic about, said Esfandiari and a panel of other experts who discussed the election during a Friday briefing on Capitol Hill.

"Sitting in that country, the choice is between bad and worse, but even a bad candidate can improve things somewhat for Iranians," said Esfandiari, explaining that many are just happy to see the exit of current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Grim projections were offered by most of those who appeared at the Cannon House Office Building for the Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s (FDD) panel.

However, all agreed that the upcoming election is the Islamic Republic’s most significant political event in decades.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other senior regime figures are handling the election "with care," said Ray Takeyh, a former senior State Department adviser on Iran.

The next Iranian president will likely find himself president over a period of unprecedented change in Iran as older politicians and religious leaders die and are replaced by a younger group of untested figures.

"During this [next] eight years the Islamic Republic may go through a succession of institutions," Takeyh said. "The next eight years will be a time of potential succession," meaning that Khamenei will aim to have the president act as a government "anchor."

Because of this Khamenei is searching a "subordinate and submissive" person to replace Ahmadinejad, who is known for his vitriolic rhetoric and penchant to go rogue.

"The next president will have to be more modest in his ambitions," Takeyh said.

Khamenei in recent weeks has prevented several potential candidates from running for office and have even signed off on a crackdown against opponents and other would-be troublemakers.

Whatever the outcome of the election, the next Iranian president is unlikely to negotiate with Western powers over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program, experts said.

"They can’t even be candidates if they say they’ll stop the nuke program," Esfandiari said. "The only difference is in the approach" the next president will take.

"The next president of Iran is going to introduce himself to the international community differently than President Ahmadinejad," who very publicly engaged in anti-Semitic and anti-American rhetoric, Takeyh said.

Others urged the U.S. government to say as little as possible as the election plays out.

"In this town it may be hard to accept the fact that the Iranian election is an Iranian event," said former Ambassador John Limbert, who formerly served as a deputy coordinator for Counterterrorism at the State Department.

Limbert’s advice to U.S. policy makers thinking about weighing in on the election: "Shut up about it."

"If we try to make this thing about us, we’ll tie ourselves in knots with bad assumptions and misguided decisions based on what we think we know about Iran’s internal dynamics," Limbert added. "It’s not our election."

Politicians risk isolating progressive Iranians who want change, Limbert said.

"If we are seen as openly favoring one candidate over another we feed the basic narrative of the Islamic republic, which is we’re out to get them," he said. "I know it’s hard to restrain ourselves but this election may be extremely important for Iranians."

Takeyh, on the other hand, said that the United States should not remain silent.

"I’m not quite sure why we should remain silent and offer the Islamic Republic a deference" that is not given to any other nation," Takeyh said. "This is a conversation that would take place first to redeem American values" and encourage progressive Iranians to make their voices heard.