- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2005

Future presidents of Iran’s Islamic republic are not typically found in the Rutgers University faculty lounge, but Hooshang Amirahmadi argues that extraordinary times in his native country call for extraordinary measures.

A longtime activist for better U.S.-Iranian relations and director of the New Jersey school’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Mr. Amirahmadi last week joined a crowded list of candidates for Iran’s June 17 presidential election.

His agenda: normalize ties with Washington, establish a coalition government of national unity and implement many of the political and economic reforms blocked by hard-liners during the two four-year terms of departing President Mohammed Khatami.

“It is not a symbolic gesture. I am serious,” he said in an interview Thursday during a brief trip to Washington before traveling to Iran to campaign.

“Right now, my biggest challenge isn’t being accepted by the Iranian people. It’s being accepted by the [hard-line] Guardians Council and even being allowed to run,” he added.

Iranian analysts say the June 17 vote will shine a stark light on the state of Iran’s troubled Islamic republic, a quarter-century after the revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed shah.

Mr. Khatami’s overwhelming victories in 1997 and 2001 showed the deep unpopularity of thehard-line religious establishment led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

However, the widespread disappointment with Mr. Khatami’s record in office also showed that the hard-liners retain a firm grasp on the levers of real power, which they demonstrated again last year by disqualifying so many reformist candidates that Iran’s parliament was left dominated by regime allies.

The political and economic stagnation has developed as Iran faces two huge foreign-policy challenges — the postwar chaos in neighboring Iraq and global suspicions that Tehran is secretly developing nuclear weapons.

Disillusionment and apathy are so common among Iranian voters that most expect turnout to be far lower next month than the 80 percent who voted in 1997 and the 66.8 percent who turned out four years later.

Conservative former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 70, said to be the front-runner, spoke openly of a “crisis of confidence” facing Iran that persuaded him to enter the race.

Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, 43, Iran’s former top police officer, considered a moderate on political issues, registered Friday with the Interior Ministry as a candidate for president. Although polling in Iran is an inexact science, many see Mr. Qalibaf as Mr. Rafsanjani’s toughest challenger.

When registration of candidates closed yesterday, more than 1,010 applicants, including 89 women, had joined Mr. Amirahmadi in seeking a place on the ballot.

But even here, the Islamic religious establishment holds the key. The watchdog Guardians Council, consisting of a dozen clerics and Islamic judges, vets the list carefully. The council disqualified all but 10 of the record 814 Iranians who applied to run in 2001.

The Iranian exile community in the United States itself is divided on how to deal with Tehran. Some support isolating and undermining the Islamic regime, while others have rallied around Reza Pahlavi, the exiled son of the late shah.

They have clashed with the American-Iranian Council (AIC), which Mr. Amirahmadi helped found in 1997 and which he now serves as president. They say the AIC has been accommodating the Iranian theocracy.

For his part, Mr. Amirahmadi compares his U.S. critics to Iraqi exile activist Ahmed Chalabi, saying they hope only to use the American military as a “hammer” to further their own political ends.

He argued that a U.S. policy of isolation had not helped end dictatorships in countries such as Cuba and Burma, while American engagement undermined authoritarian governments from Central Europe to East Asia.

Mr. Amirahmadi said he is running for president in part because he fears Iran is slipping into disorder and chaos from an increasingly dysfunctional government.

“A destabilized Iran, whatever some people think, benefits nobody,” he said. “A strong Iran — a confident Iran — keeps everyone in the region honest.”

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