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Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News Second shot Hooshang Amirahmadi’s candidature for the 2005 presidential elections was rejected by the Guardian Council Image Credit:

Academic Dr Hooshang Amirahmadi is all set to test the waters in the next presidential elections this June. He does not seem deterred by his last experience in active politics in 2005 when his nomination to contest the presidential election was rejected by the Guardian Council.

Despite having moved to the United States in 1975 before the Islamic Revolution swept Iran, Amirahmadi not only pursued academics and then a successful career, he maintained close ties with his home country. A professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University, Amirahmadi’s previous involvement in diplomatic endeavours to bridge the yawning trust deficit between the Iranian regime and Washington has brought him both praise and criticism at home. His understanding of the Iranian regime, the West and the needs of the Iranian people, principally the youth, makes a compelling case for a future in politics. How that fares remains to be seen, especially as the country’s leadership comes up against divisions and struggles to maintain its economy afloat in the face of crippling international sanctions to deter it from pursuing uranium enrichment.

In an exclusive interview with Weekend Review, Amirahmadi spoke at length about his own political aspirations, his election mandate that aims to reconcile divisions within Iran and with the outside world, and how Iran’s uranium enrichment stalemate could be resolved.

What has compelled you to stand as an independent candidate in Iran’s forthcoming 2013 presidential election?

I have always stood above factions and have taken a more nationalistic, across-factions perspective on Iran. I have accepted the invitation to run for elections but we don’t rule out forming a coalition with people who want to join us or who have similar views on election issues, but that’s something for a later time. I believe that without this reconciliation Iran cannot move forward, peace won’t be available to the Iranian people or the region. My slogan is reconciliation for national interest and a content people.

How do you plan to reconcile divergent political groups, especially when there is a clear-cut power tussle going on between the Supreme Leader, President Ahmadinejad and the reformists?

The biggest problem Iran faces is polarisation. It is extremely polarised within the regime, between the regime and outside groups, and among the opposition. There has never before been such a situation where the president and speaker of parliament and judiciary chief were so inimical towards each other. We believe that this is very dangerous for the nation, so we are preaching the reconciliation gospel. We are very hopeful that they will listen to us. We believe no single group can resolve or solve the issues the nation faces. There is no single force in Iran that can solve these problems. They need to come together to solve the problems — economic, social and foreign.

Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei is reportedly Ahmadinejad’s favourite to run for president? Is he likely to be rejected by the Guardian Council in the vetting process? Do you feel this election will be any freer than the last?

I do not want to comment on that. I don’t know what’s in the mind of the Guardian Council. Mashaei has many friends and enemies and they will of course argue for and against him. My only hope is that this election is free, fair, just and transparent and that’s what I am here for. I am expecting this is a fair election, not “unlike the previous election”, but better than other elections. For example, in the previous election a lot of people were vetted out for no reason. I expect this election to be more inclusive. I am hoping more people to come and be given a chance. The fact is that previous elections have shown during election time, Iran is not a very safe place to be. If you don’t really open up, if you are not fair, just and transparent, serious protests could happen. I am hoping this time it will be different.

The key reformist candidates in the 2009 election, Mir Hussain Mousawi and Mehdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest. This does not offer much hope in terms of fairness and transparency.

Personally my group and I have called for freeing of Mr Karroubi and Mr Mousawi and his wife and other political prisoners. We believe in democracy, human rights and rule of law. It is best for Iran, for the Islamic system, that it gives people more chances and lets them open up. I have mentioned before that Iran is a country where politics is extremely polarised. I think it’s good for the republic to bring people together, create a united front, to be more inclusive. We are all for the political prisoners to be freed.

In view of the sanctions-hit economy and the soaring inflation and unemployment, is there less tolerance for the power tussle at the top?

The Islamic regime is under tremendous pressure. Apart from the political polarisation and infighting among the regime, sanctions and isolation really have crippled the Iranian economy significantly. It is unfortunate that Iranian people are suffering economically. Unemployment is very high, inflation is very high. When they sell oil they have a hard time to move that money. The international banking system is almost closed to Iran, so it’s very tough. At the same time it faces opposition from America and others over enrichment and other issues; it is resisting, not giving in. The international community is not giving in either so you have a situation where both sides are not giving in and sanctions are in the middle, harming and hurting the Iranian people.

In fact, the need for change is real in Iran — they really want it to happen. This does not mean a regime change but a real change — in the way their economy, politics and foreign policy starts working. Iranians want to have normal lives. I feel I can solve Iran’s problem, the international problem, and the economic issues.

How do you plan to reconcile Iran’s stance on nuclear enrichment with that of the international community?

The bottom line in the nuclear issue is the lack of trust. The international community, the West, in particular, has no trust in the Islamic Republic and the Islamic Republic has no trust in the United States and the European community. What you need to do before you address the nuclear issue is to change this, to break down this wall of mistrust. Unfortunately, the Islamic Republic is locked into this situation of lack of trust and it cannot break through it. I don’t believe the international community’s problem is with enrichment. There is nothing particular about Iran but the lack of trust — this system, from day one, has developed this mistrust with the West.

The source of this problem was the revolution itself. America wanted to moderate this revolution whereas the revolution wanted to get rid of America. So this problem developed and it exacerbated to what it is now. My administration will certainly start with building trust. We will start with the United Nations. I feel it’s very bad that Iran’s issue is with the Security Council that has several resolutions against Iran. I would do anything in my power to change that situation and take the nuclear enrichment file back to the IAEA. I would then gradually try to rebuild that trust with the United States and the international community. Remember Iran was a friend of the US and the West and a lot of other countries but unfortunately the revolution that was supposed to create peace and harmony, justice, economic development and political stability somehow started this vicious circle of mistrust and problems. So we need to break that cycle and bring trust back.

What are the chief factors that will decide the vote in Iranian elections? What is important to the Iranian youth who constitute almost two thirds of the population?

The Iranian youth have different needs, the first and foremost being jobs. In Iran there are tremendous restrictions on the youth. I will give a lot of attention to this, to the extent that I can. It is an Islamic country; we have tremendous respect for Islam. We have many progressive Muslim countries and they have created a social order that is free but that also has certain restrictions that are in line with Islamic principles.

What are the key sectors you want to prioritise in terms of development and which of them, you feel, have been neglected?

In terms of education and health care, the Islamic Republic has done quite well. However, they have failed miserably in social justice. For example, the gap between the rich and poor is increasingly getting bigger. This revolution was supposed to be just and help the poor people. There is discrimination against women. This has to be resolved. The Islamic Republic should have given more open space to youth to grow, to be more novel, to be more innovative. The disparity between people has to be addressed.”

What is, in your view, Iran’s biggest problem? And is there a way out of the present deadlock?

The biggest problem in Iran is it’s been a revolutionary nation. In Iran the best way out of the locked status quo is the plan I have. There are four alternatives: First, to continue with the system as it is — sanctions, domestic problems, polarisation. There is little hope that the Islamic Republic will solve problems with the international community. That needs to be changed.

Second, some people say we need to change the regime. That’s impossible. The regime-changers misunderstand the nature of the regime and nature of Islam. They misunderstand Iran because, God forbid, if the system were to collapse, Iran would disintegrate into pieces. So you will have civil war. It could spread instability to the whole region.

Third, some people look at an external intervention model as in Iraq or Libya — to get Americans and Europeans to come and do the dirty work. Again we have seen in Libya, in Iraq, that it is not a remedy. You destroy the country, kill millions and it will take years for the country to get back to what it was.

Fourth is my option, which is very simple. I am running within the Islamic Republic. Within the system I can change the country enough to make the regime survive, make Iranian people happy and have peace in the region. You need to change foreign policy, to have a more accommodating win-win policy. You have to deal with the West, the UN and the Arab world, and build trust with them. I don’t think the contradictions with the West and the Arab world are so insurmountable that you can’t do anything. My foreign policy will be peace with every nation and reconciliation. My slogan will be “Iran has no enemies”.

Domestically, I will push for national reconciliation, a united front, and a coalition government. I will do everything in my power to make political revenge completely, constitutionally illegal. I will eliminate that. Economically, Iran needs foreign investments. It needs to make its people productive. Iran has the world’s second largest gas reserves, the fourth largest oil reserves. The gap between Iran’s achievements and resources is huge. We need to bring these to match; there is no other way. I hope to change that completely in five years.