Trump and Tehran Trade Conciliatory Signals ahead of Iran’s Presidential Election
The six figures confirmed on April 20 by Iran’s Guardian Council as candidates qualified to run for president in the May 19 election, provided a clue to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s baffling assertion two days earlier that Iran is sticking to the terms of the nuclear deal concluded with the Obama administration.
The candidates listed are the incumbent, pro-West Hassan Rouhani, 68, the conservative cleric Ehrahim Raisi, 56, the reformist acting vice president Eshagh Jahangiri, the ultra-conservative former minister of culture Mostafa Aqa-Mirsalim, the former Industry Minister during the Rafsanjani presidency Mostafa Hashemi-Taba, and the youngest candidate, Mayor of Tehran Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf.
Aged 55, he is a pilot and former commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) air force.
The Guardian Council disqualified former president, the hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was the powerhouse behind Iran’s nuclear and missile programs and during his reign (2005-2013), brought his country to the threshold of nuclear weaponization.
The Council nonetheless found him “lacking the necessary standards to take part as a candidate in the elections.”
Above and beyond the domestic political ramifications of this decision, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who dictates the Council’s work and every other important state decision in the Islamic Republic, was sending a tentative message to Washington.
He was saying that the era of confrontation with America may be relegated to the past and, while they would certainly have their ups and downs, relations with the new US president Donald Trump need not revert to the hostile turbulence of the Ahmadinejad era.
This message was aired just 48 hours after Secretary Tillerson commended Iran for upholding the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, although he questioned whether sanctions should remain lifted, given Iran’s continued support for terrorism. He also said that the Trump administration was reviewing the sanctions question since Iran remained a sponsor of terrorism.
The new secretary of state’s good conduct rating for Iran’s nuclear behavior was a bitter pill for many of Trump’s most loyal advocates. They recalled how during his campaign, the president promised to “rip up” the worst deal ever negotiated. Former UN Ambassador and noted pundit John Bolton found Tillerson’s statement “embarrassing” and “fundamentally mistaken.”
The silence from the Netanyahu government in Jerusalem was ear-splitting.
The proximity of those remarks to the Guardian Council’s list of presidential candidates indicated that Washington had been tipped off about the relatively moderate presidential front-runners in Tehran and was signaling in return that it had been noted. If it were sustained, President Trump hinted through Tillerson that he might consider a positive reponse.
Those events find the Trump administration working on three fundamental policy decisions:
1. His senior advisers in the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the State Department are leaning towards a decision to avoid touching the nuclear deal that Iran concluded with six world powers two years ago.
After all, it was not a real accord in the formal sense, since it was never ratified as a document by the US Congress and, aside from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kelly, no competent authority actually signed it – either in Washington or Tehran.
2. Taking up the cudgels over the nuclear deal would give the supreme leader a pretext, they say, for pulling the presidential election campaign into radical positions, while ducking Iran’s acute problems, like its deep economic crisis and chronic unemployment among young Iranians.
3. The Trump administration assigns a higher priority than the nuclear program to grappling with Iran’s belligerent interventions in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
An examination of Iran’s top presidential candidates is instructive in this regard.
President Rouhani has no say on Iran’s policies of intervention in the three Arab nations. They are dictated directly from Khamenei’s bureau. The conservative cleric Raisi is the only relative hardliner the supreme ruler has positioned in counterpoint to the moderate president. However, not only has he not been seconded by the radical Revolutionary Guards or ultra-conservative clerics, he is also a maverick in his views on Iran’s foreign adventures. If it were up to him, he would pull every last Iranian, Hizballah and other proxy fighter out of Syria forthwith.
Two of the frontrunners, therefore, appear to have been chosen by Khamenei to inform the Trump administration that there may be room to broach the Syrian question with Tehran.
But the supreme leader has also left himself a third option, in case the first two don’t serve their purpose: Getting Tehran Mayor Ghalibaf elected. The outcome of Iran’s May election is therefore as unpredictable as ever, since its prospects may fluctuate wildly in any direction. It will be recalled that twelve years ago, no one had heard of Ahmadinejad, another former mayor of Tehran, and he was installed as president apparently out of the blue.