Iran held presidential elections last week, which resulted in a runoff scheduled to take place this Friday. But few are expecting any real changes in the way the country is governed. At least that’s what Mohsen Sazegara of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy predicted at an American Enterprise Institute event on June 16. In fact, Sazegara said that regardless of who wins the presidential election, there will be no real changes in Iranian policy because under the current constitution, all power lies in the hands of the “Supreme Leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Sazegara even questioned the integrity of candidates who claimed to plan significant changes in Iran’s policy without changing the current constitution. He feels very strongly that what matters for the Iranian people is not the election, but a referendum.
Apparently many Iranians feel the same way. In some ways, this is the beginning of a new stage in Iran’s political life: after the failure of current president Mohammad Khatami to make the significant reforms he had promised, Sazegara and others feel that many Iranians are beginning to realize the defeat of the reform movement and are calling for an entirely new constitution. Perhaps now they will be able to see the impossibility of true change when a president is still under the power of the Supreme Leader. The next few weeks after the election could be the necessary catalyst for a real movement toward referendum. If enough Iranians are able to see the lack of true democracy in the elections and the lack of possibility for change, maybe they will finally insist on a referendum for a wholly new government.
How does this affect the U.S.? It could impact us greatly in our efforts against terror if a new Iranian government that does not support terrorism is installed. Overall, a new Iranian government could possibly be more pro-American, which would change many of the current dynamics between Iran and the U.S.
Sazegara urges the American government to support a possible movement for referendum and a change of the status quo in Iran. “Iranians need hope,” says Sazegara, who feels now is a pivotal moment for the U.S. to give support. However, he cautions strongly against financial or military assistance, saying such assistance would not only not be helpful, but could possibly even hinder efforts at changing the government. Rather, Sazegara calls for the U.S. government to help constitution-changing efforts in three specific ways: by announcing they will not recognize any results of the elections because the elections are not democratic under the current constitution, by putting an international spotlight on the human rights violations in Iran, and by launching an international investigation to reveal the Iranian government’s role in sponsoring terrorism. Says Sazegara, these efforts could convince the Iranian people of the corruption in their current government and reassure them of the U.S. desire to support democracy in Iran, while not raising fears of an ulterior economic motive.
With the current War on Terror and a tendency to pay increasingly more attention to the Middle East, any possible change in the Iranian government could prove particularly important to the U.S. But I have to question: how likely to succeed are Sazegara’s proposed ways to help Iranian democracy? How probable is a referendum? And even if a referendum did succeed, what is the possibility of a new Iranian government actually being pro-democracy and even pro-America? While I carefully watch the Iranian elections unfold, I hesitate to be too hopeful for actual change.