Iran's presidential hopefuls embrace West

Vilifying of `Great Satan' gives way to desire for restored ties with U.S.

June 12, 2005|By Evan Osnos | Evan Osnos,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

TEHRAN, Iran - Confetti littered a street filled with dance music. It was 10 p.m., and young men and women were packed together, shouting, dancing and wandering in unbridled celebration of a victory by the Iranian national soccer team.

Very little of that scene last week was lawful in the Islamic Republic of Iran. But it's campaign season here, and candidates are aiming to please. Even the campaign office for the 70-year-old Muslim cleric and presidential front-runner, Hashemi Rafsanjani, lofted a disco ball above the road, and teenage boys break-danced in its rainbow swirls of light.

"Disco Hashemi forever!" a young woman cried from the crowd of spectators.

A generation after Iran's Islamic Revolution enshrined the United States as the "Great Satan," some top politicians have concluded that their best strategy for Friday's presidential election is not vilifying the West but embracing it. In speeches, posters and even Web logs, would-be presidents of Iran are jockeying not over who can speed up development of nuclear technology but who might restore relations with the United States.

"They know the will and the wishes of the people, and they want to make a breakthrough with the United States," said former diplomat Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international law at Tehran University.

The prospect of restoring a quarter-century of broken ties contrasts sharply with the mounting tension between the United States and Iran over Tehran's nuclear efforts, which the United States suspects could be for military use. But the issue of normalizing relations with the United States highlights the widening gap between a young, reform-hungry population and Iran's regime.

Beyond the diplomatic wrangling, a large if uncertain number of Iranians say they would rather live with the United States than struggle against it.

Iranians routinely say they have a national right to develop nuclear technology. But when asked in interviews to make a choice between nuclear power and an economic and political relationship with the United States, many pick the latter.

"In the history of U.S. and Iranian relations, we once had a strong relationship. Iranian businessmen have done very well there," said Hussein Mohammadi, 44, a telecom worker. "The biggest mistake was saying, `Down with America.'"

The Islamic Republic has sought quietly to soften its image, buffing away the impression left by episodes such as the seizure in 1979 of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Ordinary Iranians have long had a softer stance toward the West than their leaders; after the Sept. 11 attacks, Iranians held a spontaneous candlelight vigil in Tehran. The difference today is that some aspiring leaders are changing their rhetoric as well.

With nearly two-thirds of the country's population born after the 1979 revolution, there is growing pressure for change. For many young Iranians, their financial and practical longing to join the world trumps their ideological conviction to stay isolated from it.

But talk of warming relations with the United States still riles conservative pillars of Iran's leadership. Most importantly, the West apparently holds no appeal to the nation's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the appointed chief of state who oversees the president and has final say on state policy. In a televised address last month, Khamenei, whom Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini chose as his successor, said, "All the crimes committed during [the last 150 years] are a product of the Western experience."

That message is virtually unchanged from the 26-year-old revolutionary pledge to rid Iran of "Westoxication." Whether the next president could challenge that position is uncertain as long as the supreme leader and powerful clerics hold veto power over elected officials. "We have a clash with the United States which is in our ideology," said a prominent conservative editor, Hossein Shariatmadari, whose views closely reflect those of top clerics. "Making a relationship with the U.S. is not in the power of the president."

But by any measure, the presidential candidates have evidently calculated that for today's most vital voters, moderation is the best approach.

Iran needs "to think global, since globalization is a reality and not a foreign-made [concept]," Rafsanjani, a political veteran who served as president from 1989 to 1997, told state television last week.

Rafsanjani says that he wants relations with the United States but that he won't take the first step until the United States releases more than $11 billion in Iranian assets. Privately, his aides say he welcomed the U.S. decision last month to drop its opposition to Iran's membership in the World Trade Organization. Steps such as that, they said, boost an Iranian president's credibility to broach at home the sensitive subject of U.S. ties.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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