By Garrett Nada
After the economy, the most controversial issue in the presidential election is normalizing Tehran’s ties with the United States. For the first time, both major conservative and reformist candidates actually embrace the idea that direct talks could bring Iran out of isolation by lifting sanctions. They all stipulate that Washington must first change its behavior and tone, but their initial positions may indicate a new openness to diplomatic compromise.
The foreign policy debate has also provided candidates with yet another opportunity to blast outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Many blame the president’s inflammatory rhetoric for damaging Iran’s standing worldwide. Ahmadinejad’s claim that the Holocaust never happened has even become a campaign issue.
• “Where did the case of the Holocaust [denial] take us?” said Tehran mayor
Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, a conservative presidential candidate.
• Ahmadinejad’s words “provided the Zionists with something to make a row about,”
said Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, another candidate and a parliamentarian.
• The president should “think before talking and avoid disparate words,” said Akbar
Velayati, chief foreign policy adviser to the supreme leader.
Iran’s supreme leader has the final word on foreign policy. A senior cleric explicitly warned candidates against discussing issues beyond the president’s authority. “You are neither competent nor authorized to decide on the resumption of ties with the United States,” Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani, a member of the Assembly of Experts, said on May 3. The following are foreign policy positions of eight major candidates, according to Iranian news media.
Mostafa Kavakebian, secretary general of the Democracy Party
• “Direct talks between Iran and the United States could be constructive and useful for both sides…”
• “Relations with United States are not a piece of merchandise you could buy right away. Rather we must be able to ward off sanctions and establish relations with the United States through a proper agenda and according to the 176th article of the constitution.”
• “Not all of our problems will be solved [by U.S. ties], rather the effects of the sanctions will at least be reduced…”
• “While I was in parliament, I presented a six-month plan which would improve Iran’s relations with the United States, and I still insist on this plan.”
Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, mayor of Tehran
• “It is wrong to tell society that the country’s problems will be resolved if we establish relations with the United States.”
• I “neither sanctify nor reject the possibility of holding direct talks with the United States.”
• Iran “should not be involved in disputes with other countries for no reason.”
• Iran needs “intelligent and rational” diplomacy.
• The nuclear energy program is “our most important foreign-policy topic.”
• Controversial and useless remarks “struck a blow against us…Where did the case of the Holocaust take us? We were never against Judaism; it’s a religion. What we opposed was Zionism.”
• Strengthening resistance under pressure is part of Iran’s strategy.
Hassan Rouhani, former head of the Supreme National Security Council
• “We should gradually harness this hostility [with the U.S.] and… move towards putting tension aside.”
• “We must enter talks [with the West] only if we can guarantee our national interests…We must resolve the nuclear dispute. We must also stick to our nuclear [energy program]…”
• “No country can afford being cut off from the rest of the world.”
• Foreign policy should take a “rational direction.”
Mohammad Reza Bahonar, deputy speaker of parliament
• Tehran is ready for direct U.S. talks if the United States “does not have the upper-hand and a domineering position.”
• “We recognize U.S. interests… But when they [Americans] want to shake hands, they show an iron first to us. They should change that arrogant attitude first.”
• Build relations with all countries, except Israel, by 2025
• “Having or not having relations with a country is not a virtue.”
• Don’t change Iran’s nuclear policy and maintain the right to a civilian nuclear energy program.
• The nuclear issue needs to be solved through the United Nations, “not through political channels.”
• Fight terrorism and defend Muslims worldwide.
Mohammad Reza Aref, vice president under former President Mohammad Khatami
• Tehran would agree to bilateral talks with Washington if it stops setting conditions.
• Iran should depoliticize the controversy over its nuclear energy program and seek a win-win deal in negotiations.
• Direct talks with the United States would need to be regulated by the Supreme National Security Council.
• Iran should interact with all countries except Israel.
Ali Akbar Velayati, chief foreign policy adviser to the supreme leader
• Talks with Washington depend on U.S. behavior.
• Any direct negotiations with the United States would be based on the supreme leader’s guidelines.
• Expand relations with other countries and do not allow Iran to be driven into isolation.
• “Think before talking and avoid disparate words” in foreign relations.
• Continue “resisting against the expansionist policies of Western states.”
• Resolve economic issues through effective foreign policy and calculated steps
Mohsen Rezaei, Expediency Council secretary and ex-Revolutionary Guards chief
• “If negotiations take place between Iran and United States and end in failure, undoubtedly Iran will come under military attack…”
• Revamp foreign policy to confront sanctions more effectively.
Alireza Zakani, ex-health minister and current member of parliament
• “As for normalization of ties with the United States, Washington holds the key. It has to change its hostile attitude first.”