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Foreign Affairs Media Call: Hooman Majd and Mohsen Milani on Iranian Presidential Election

Speakers: Hooman Majd, Author, "The Ayatollahs' Democracy: An Iranian Challenge"; "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran", and Mohsen M. Milani, Executive Director, Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies; Professor, Department of Government and International Affairs, University of South Florida in Tampa
Presider: Gideon Rose, Editor, Peter G. Petersen Chair, Foreign Affairs Magazine
June 10, 2013
Council on Foreign Relations

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OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your patience in holding. We now have our speakers in conference. Please be aware that each of your lines is on a listen-only mode.

At the conclusion of our speakers' presentation, we will open the floor for questions. Instructions will be given at that time on the procedure to follow if you would like to ask a question.

It is now my pleasure to turn this conference over to Gideon Rose. You may begin.

GIDEON ROSE: Hi, everybody, and welcome to another Foreign Affairs call. Gideon Rose here, the editor of Foreign Affairs. We have a couple of great experts today to discuss the Iranian elections with us. Mohsen Milani is professor of politics and the executive director of the Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa. And Hooman Majd is the author of "The Ayatollahs' Democracy" and also of the upcoming book "The Minister of Guidance Invites You Not to Stay." Both of them are top-notch Iran experts and frequent Foreign Affairs authors, and we're delighted to have them with us to enlighten us about what's going on.

So Mohsen, let me start with you. Give us a basic scene setter for what's happening and why this is important.

MOHSEN MILANI: Well, the Iranian presidential elections are always important. But I think this year is a little bit different from the previous years because the elections are not as free as they used to be, precisely because the one person, one individual, who probably had the greatest chance of receiving a majority vote in the elections, and I'm talking about Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was disqualified from participating in the election. And that is truly a turning point in the history of elections in Iran because Rafsanjani is a founding father of the Islamic republic and has held just about every important and sensitive position in the Islamic republic. And the fact that 12 unelected men had decided to disqualify this man should tell you all you need to know about the nature of this election.

But having said that, the election is important because the Iranian president is going to be in charge of managing one of the 25 largest economies in the world and will have a seat in the table when Iran's major foreign policy and nuclear policies are decided. Of the seven remaining candidates -- Haddad-Adel has already withdrawn -- of the seven major candidates, five of them have similar views to Ayatollah Khamenei about foreign policy and nuclear issues, and two are -- have been highly critical of the performance of the Islamic Republic, both economically and in terms of foreign policy. I'm talking about -- (inaudible) -- Rouhani and Mohammad Reza Aref. Both of them represent the reformist camp of Iran, but the other five are -- all belong to the same camp, to the same faction, the conservative faction. And the reality of Iran is that in the past eight years that faction has been in total control of the Iranian judiciary, of the Iranian parliament and the presidency, and they seem to be determined not to open up the political process to other factions in the Islamic Republic.

ROSE: And Hooman, is that your take as well? You've described this in our pages as a democracy of small differences. What did you mean by that?

MAJD: Yeah. No, I think that is generally accurate. I mean, I would say that it's always impossible to talk about these things in five- or 10-minute short paragraphs. But I think that, yeah, I mean, I think there are some small differences that could be magnified over time.

I think that even among the conservatives, much as there are among conservatives in the United States, for example, there are significant differences. There are significance difference between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, for example, and in Iran it's the same thing. They do represent the same general camp, in the way that Republicans here would represent a certain kind of ideology -- political ideology. It's absolutely true -- Mohsen is correct -- that the five of them do represent the so-called principlist camp, which -- who adhere to the principles of the revolution as Ayatollah Khamenei has described them, or abused them.

But there are significant differences even among them. I would say that the last debate, for example, presidential debate, showed that there was a rather large gap between Saeed Jalili, the current nuclear negotiator, and Velayati, who is the former foreign minister, who criticized Jalili quite strongly for his negotiation tactics, and suggesting that Iran has not performed well in negotiations with the P-5 plus one. There was disagreement between him and Ghalibaf, who is the current mayor of Tehran, who is seen as one of the favorites on the conservative side, if not the favorite.

So I think there is a tone. And I think as Mohsen pointed, it is actually important because the president, whoever he is -- ends up being, does have a seat at the table where these things are decided, and so far the supreme leader, even though he has cracked down on the reformists and reformist ideology, has tended to rule by consensus, even if the consensus is narrow within a smaller circle than it should be, which is why you see these kinds of disagreements in these televised debates between some -- even the conservatives themselves. So there are small differences that could be magnified as an -- a new administration takes over. Certainly in foreign policy we could see a different tone. Ultimately, the final decision is made by the supreme leader in terms of what to offer in negotiations, how to negotiate, but I think you'll see a different tone.

On the reform side, with Rouhani now being endorsed by Khatami, apparently, just a few minutes ago, as far as my -- if my information's correct, I think you're going to see a rather -- you know, much bigger difference between -- if he is able to be victorious or at least get to the second round, which -- I believe this election's going to go to a second round at this point -- you would see a significant difference, I think, not just in the tone of foreign policy, but I think you'd also see a difference in social issues too. Not that they're suddenly going to open up Iran or that the political atmosphere's going to change dramatically, but I think over time, if Rouhani is allowed to win and if he does win, I think you would see some rather more significant changes.

ROSE: The crack -- you know, the limitation of the candidacies seems to have been greater this time around than -- does this represent a sort of -- is there a constant limitation or are we back to a more constrained republic after a little bit more freewheeling internal debate over the last few years?

MAJD: Is the question to me? I think that --

ROSE: Either one.

MAJD: Yeah. No, I think definitely it's more constrained, I think partly because -- for a number of reasons. One is that Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard see threats from abroad. They see the potential for another movement such as the Green Movement, which I believe is the reason they've disqualified Rafsanjani, as Mohsen pointed out.

So they feel under threat. They're very concerned about the atmosphere around the elections, which are always heightened in Iran, and there tends to be excitement or -- you know, among certain people. The last time -- certainly there was last time, in 2009. And I think that's partly the reason -- partly the reason for it, but there's no question that the atmosphere -- the political atmosphere in Iran, as Rouhani has pointed out, has become a securitized atmosphere since 2009. There's a -- there's a certain paranoia on the regime's part about the potential for more unrest or discontent coming out, pouring out into the streets.

And so they really want to manage this election. And the constraints are rather severe. Even yesterday evening Tehran time there was a rumor put out by Fars, which is a news agency in Iran controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, that the Guardian Council today, on Monday, would review Rouhani's candidacy and potentially even disqualify him at this late stage for, you know, generating excitement, basically, even though they would claim that it's for leaking sensitive information and for -- and some of his supporters have been arrested and so on and so forth. And that turned out not to be true, but I think that's the kind of intimidation tactic that the regime is using with some of the reformists to kind of draw the line and say, you know, don't cross these red lines or else.

So yeah, that's unusual this time compared to in the past, where elections have been much freer -- not as free as the United States or other democracies in the West the way we see it, but certainly freer, and much freer by the standards of the Middle East.

ROSE: Mohsen, you've written for us about what they're trying to do to sort of keep things in line this time. You want to add to that?

MILANI: Well, a couple of important points. One is that what we have been witnessing in the past, I think, at least since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, is that the size of the Iranian elite and the size of the popular support for the Islamic Republic has narrowed down significantly. It is much smaller today than what it was in time of Ayatollah Khomeini, and certainly, it is significantly smaller than it was in 1989.

But more importantly, and that's the reality of Iran today and the reality of the elections, there is a large constituency, I would say somewhere between 55 to 60 percent of the electorate, that is hungry for reform, hungry for change, significant change in Iranian politics and in the politics of the Islamic Republic. Any candidate who can attract that large constituency, which essentially consists of people under the age of 30, which is about 60 percent of the population, as well as women, as well as the modern middle class, that individual can win.

The reality is that the right wing or the conservative faction does not have the support among this constituency, and therefore, the Islamic Republic and Ayatollah (Khamenei ?) in particular are doing everything they can not to allow a candidate to emerge that can attract this large constituency. This is why they eliminated Ayatollah Rafsanjani, because he was beginning to attract that large constituency. This is why Mousavi is still in prison under house arrest. This is why Ayatollah Khomeini (sic) is going to do everything he can not to allow anyone who can attract that constituency to win the election. And this is why if Hassan Rouhani, who, as Hooman correctly said, seems to become the candidate of choice for this large constituency, if he wins then we're going to see the continuation of the same kind of tension between the supreme leader and the Iranian president.

The bottom line is that there is a contradiction is the Islamic constitution. That contradiction is that on that on the one hand, the constitution wants to create a republic in which its republican component, the parliament and the presidency, is subordinated to the nonelected supreme leader. You simply cannot have a republic that is -- that is -- whose president and whose parliament is subordinated to this supreme leader.

So what I believe has been happening in Iran in the past eight years is a movement away from these Islamic republic and a move toward creating an Islamic government, a form of government in which the president is totally subordinated to the supreme leader. And unfortunately, despite the major differences between the five candidates of the principlist camp -- and as Hooman correctly said, there are some differences -- none of those five candidates are about to challenge this fundamental contradiction of the Islamic republic. They are all pretty much happy with the supreme leader calling the -- calling the calls and they more or less serving as his chief executive implementer.

ROSE: Having borrowed some powers from the NSA and looked at who's on the call here, I realize there's a great audience here with a lot of interesting questions. So at this point I'm going to shut up myself and turn you guys over to them. So, operator, let's get right to our audience so they can ask our experts the questions they want to ask.

(Pause.) Moderator?

OPERATOR: Thank you very much. (Gives queuing instructions.)

Thank you. Our first question will come from Ashish Sen, the Washington Times.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thank you very much for doing this call. I wanted to ask the panelists about the importance of voter turnout. In the past, the supreme leader has pointed to higher voter turnouts to justify the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. Has the regime now, by disqualifying candidates such as Rafsanjani and Mashai, who would have ensured a higher turnout -- have they now essentially undermined that argument? Thank you.

MAJD: Who should take that question?

ROSE: Whichever one wants to jump in on it.

MILANI: Well, there are about 50 million eligible voters in Iran today, and on average in the past presidential elections, we've had somewhere between 63 (percent) to 70 percent, 73 percent voter participating. The fact that this year the presidential election is coinciding with elections for local council and municipal elections suggests to me that we are going to be able to have a voter turnout of somewhere between 65 (percent) to 72 percent, which is not going to be fundamentally different from the previous elections in Iran.

But I think the caller is absolutely correct, Ayatollah Khamenei at this time wants to have an election that is peaceful, an election that does not end up in street protests and street demonstrations, as was clearly the case in 2009, and he wants to have a high voter turnout.

But at the same time, but at the same time I think it would serve him very well if the election goes to the second round of election. It is very clear to me that Ayatollah Khamenei does not want to see a presidential election with a clear mandate. The last president who had a mandate, clear, decisive mandate, was Mr. Khatami eight years ago -- 16 years ago, actually -- and we know what happened between him and Ayatollah Khamenei. And therefore, if the election goes to the second round, which it seems to me is the most likely scenario at this time, no president then can claim to have a decisive mandate, and that serves the interests of the supreme leader rather well.

MAJD: I would say -- I mean, I would say that in terms of turnout, the 2009 election was an anomaly in terms of the participation. The government records show 84 percent turnout, I think, which is, like, higher than it's ever been. So I think that they're not -- I mean, I don't think that anybody in Iran believes they're going to have an 84 percent turnout again. It was an unusual election with the tremendous wave of support for Mousavi toward the last week or so of the -- two weeks of the election season. This time I think that -- Mohsen's absolutely right -- Iran will probably have 60 percent to 70 percent, maybe more, turnout, but it certainly will have more than 50 percent turnout, I believe, anyway.

And as far as the Iranian regime is concerned and as long as Ayatollah Khamenei is concerned, that does legitimize the republic and the -- and his rule as well because at the end they always point out that the participation in the election by Iranians is much greater than by -- than Americans in U.S. elections, and it becomes hard to argue with that when we have a lower turnout rate than Iran does. So I think that's -- as far as he's concerned, that's all that he needs. As long as we get the 60 percent, as long as he gets 60 percent turnout -- and they will -- television will show, you know, long lines at certain polling places, and it will show lines even in rural areas, and it will appear to be a legitimate election with, you know, a legitimate turnout. So I think that despite Rafsanjani having been -- I mean, with Rafsanjani in the race, it potentially could have had an 80 percent turnout, as you yourself pointed out.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

Our next question will come from Golnaz Esfandiari, Radio Free Europe.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks for doing the call. Iran's intelligence minister today appeared to endorse Jalili. He said he's the -- he's better than the other six or seven candidates. What is the significance?

MAJD: I think the significance is that this shows that -- probably because the intelligence minister is a close confidant of the supreme leader and was actually reappointed by the supreme leader after Ahmadinejad tried to fire him in 2011, I think the only significance is that perhaps Jalili is the regime favorite. It might be a signal that Jalili is the establishment's favorite, as opposed to Velayati or Qalibaf, the other two potential favorites. (Chuckling.) We are not sure if they are favorites or not.

I think that's the only significance. I don't think too many people inside Iran care what the intelligence minister thinks or his endorsement will count for any additional votes. I think it just means that the establishment and the security establishment, which probably includes the Revolutionary Guards and the Basit (ph) -- Basij, might be moving to Jalili.

MILANI: I think I completely agree with Hooman that it really doesn't have a great deal of significance, except that it signals that the security elements in the Islamic republic and who are quite powerful favor Jalili and favor the status quo because, more than anyone else, Jalili symbolizes the status quo. Of the seven remaining presidential candidates, he's the only one who believes that Iran's foreign policy should continue exactly the way it was, more or less, under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And more importantly, he is -- slogan, his presidential slogan, is based on resisting the U.S. and the European Union and the West.

But the importance of this individual's endorsement is that according to published report, he's also the one who tried to convince the Guardian Council to reverse its earlier decision to endorse -- to qualify Ayatollah Rafsanjani. Apparently, he, along with some elements of the Revolutionary Guards, were able to convince the Guardian Council that should Rafsanjani be allowed to run, he is going to disturb the status quo, he is going to change Iranian -- at least orientation of the Iranian foreign policy, and at the end of the day, he convinced those 12 men to disqualify Hashemi Rafsanjani.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Karen House, retired, WSJ.

QUESTIONER: As I -- (clears throat) -- excuse me -- as I understood one of you, you're saying that for the last at least decade, the movement has been away from an Islamic Republic and toward a supreme leader-dominated government. Is there any candidate in this race that would -- could conceivably or would conceivably arrest that trend? And if so, who is it and what are the prospects of that individual getting elected?

MAJD: Well, I think that if that -- this is Hooman -- I think that at this point it seems that the one candidate who's potentially capable of arresting that trend is Hassan Rouhani, as I mentioned before, particularly now that it appears -- and the rumors are flying in Tehran -- that Aref, the other reformist, or the real reformist in the race has dropped out in favor of Rouhani and will become his vice president, or first vice president.

I think it's potentially possible. It depends on so many factors: one, if he wins; secondly, if he's allowed to win, if it's a legitimate election and he is allowed to win, and probably in a second round; and then in terms of how much he can convince -- he and his team can convince the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards to allow reform to happen or at least to go -- bring back some of the Republican elements that have existed over time in Iran.

The supreme leader has in the past -- and certainly not since 2009, but in the past -- has been amenable to certain reforms and to certain changes and to certain ideologies, but he hasn't in the last four years. I don't -- it's impossible to say whether he would be or whether it would be another -- if it was allowed to happen, and assuming that Rouhani won and became the president, whether it would be another instance of butting heads and the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guard coming on top, which they always will under the current system.

MILANI: Well, I would agree with Hooman but would add one other important element. Of the seven presidential candidates, the only two that come even close to questioning this trend that has started, at least about -- since 2000, for the past 13 years, are Rouhani, who is a cleric, and Mr. Aref, who's a noncleric.

Unfortunately, it all depends whether either one of those candidates can have a mandate, a decisive mandate. Khatami could challenge the ayatollah because he had a huge mandate. Rafsanjani could challenge the ayatollah because he had the gravitas, he had the expertise, he had the legitimacy to do it. I don't think Aref has that legitimacy. I don't think he has that guts to challenge him. And Rouhani, I think he's essentially a very conservative man by temperament, so it is very unlikely that even if he wins, he is going to challenge the supreme leader the way Rafsanjani could have challenged the supreme leader.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

Our next question will come from Clare Richardson, Reuters.

QUESTIONER: Hello. Thank you both for taking the time and for your insights.

If elected, which is the candidates is most likely to show the greatest departure from Iran's current foreign policy with regard to nuclear negotiations and Syria?

MILANI: I think this is a fairly easy question. I think number one would be Hassan Rouhani, and he has a proven record of trying to reach some sort of rapprochement, some sort of agreement with the West. He did that when he was the chief nuclear negotiator with the West. And if you pay close attention to what he has been saying in his presidential debates and in his various campaign speeches, he wants to have a friendly relationship with the West. And I believe, should he be allowed to win the presidential election, he might be able to change the orientation of Iranian foreign policy as well as its nuclear policy. But it is important to emphasize that when it comes to Iran's nuclear policy, nuclear strategy, it is the supreme leader -- it has been the supreme leader who makes the ultimate decision. However, if Rouhani can win and he does have a substantial mandate, then he, as the president of the Islamic Republic, as the second-most powerful man in the Islamic Republic, as the person who is going to conduct Iranian foreign policy, is going to be an influential figure.

And those people who have been arguing that elections in Iran are meaningless are wrong. Elections are not free, but they are extremely significant. And I think Rouhani and Aref, both of them, their victory means a change in Iranian nuclear posture.

MAJD: I would also add that the only two people who would probably have no effect whatsoever on the foreign policy direction and the nuclear issue in the race were Jalili and Haddad Adel, and they -- one of them has dropped out. Haddad Adel has dropped out. So I think the only one who would have absolutely no -- would have an effect, perhaps, but the effect would be that there would be absolutely no change, I think even among the other conservatives -- Velayati, the former foreign minister for 16 years after Rafsanjani's presidency as well as Khamenei's presidency, and as well as Ghalibaf -- certainly those two would also probably have an effect; I don't think as much as Rouhani, I would agree with Mohsen on this, but I think they would also have an effect. They've indicated, certainly in the debates and in their campaigns, that they would want to see a change in the tone and in the -- and even in policy -- (inaudible) -- as I pointed out earlier, in his most -- in the most recent debate, was harshly critical of Jalili in terms of what he had been willing to do in the negotiations in Kazakhstan, the most recent negotiations in Kazakhstan. To me, it almost felt like a red line that he was -- he was crossing, someone who is that close to the supreme leader and has been his foreign policy adviser in the 16 years that he hasn't been foreign minister.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Trudy Rubin, the Philadelphia Inquirer.

QUESTIONER: Thanks very much for doing this. I just want to follow up a little on this question of the differences between the eight candidates on the nuclear issue. As you probably saw, the Times had a piece that said all eight candidates toe hard line on nuclear might. Do -- is it -- do you believe that the tone would be what changed if Jalili didn't win and Rouhani perhaps or even Velayati won, or the substance -- or on substance, are they basically likely to take the same line? And second question, do you think Rouhani could conceivably be allowed to win? Or do you expect that in some way, this election will be fixed to suit the needs of the supreme leader?

MAJD: I think that it's unlikely that the election will be fixed at this point in the way that the impression was that the last ones were fixed. I think that would probably be something that they would not like to see happen, partly why they disqualified so many candidates and particularly high-profile candidates and why they're sending these warning shots over to people like Rouhani.

So I think that they're -- it's unlikely that they will fix -- or that there will be fraud on a massive scale. I think there will a little bit of engineering in the sense that there will -- the regime will do its very best to get its favored candidate to win. And they have a lot of tools at their disposal -- limiting airtime for the -- for the other candidates, you know, and so on and of forth. Anyway, that's a long discussion about how the regime can engineer an election rather than actually steal it.

In terms of differences, I think there's a -- there can be serious differences in the nuclear negotiations, as I pointed out about Velayati, for example, and in terms of how they can affect the supreme leader's thinking on the nuclear negotiations. You have to assume that Velayati, as former foreign minister and his chief foreign policy adviser -- the supreme leader's, I mean -- has been in the room when they have discussed the nuclear negotiations with Jalili, who's on the Supreme National Security Council, is secretary of the Supreme National Security Council; the president, Ahmadinejad, who is the chair of the Supreme National Security Council. And he's been in those meetings where they've discussed -- they've discussed the nuclear negotiations, and I'm sure that he has made his views very clear in those meetings. He has not been influential enough, obviously, to carry the day --

QUESTIONER: Right.

MAJD: -- based on his statements today. But were he to be the president, I think that would change. The membership of the Supreme National Security Council would change. It would be him sitting as the chair. He would have his nuclear negotiator sitting there. It would -- it would change the tone there, inside the Supreme National Security Council, where the supreme leader sits and obviously makes the final decision, but in those discussions. So it's a rather complicated structure in terms of how those decisions are made, but he would have an effect.

With Ahmadinejad and Jalili and the rest of the Supreme National Security Council, he has not, obviously, had -- been able to get his view to be the predominant view. But that will change.

So in response to your question, I think that there can be a change in terms of the actual substance. I mean, he suggested that Iran should have potentially accepted -- in his last televised debate, Velayati, a conservative foreign policy adviser to the supreme leader, suggested that Jalili should have probably accepted the P-5 plus one proposal in Kazakhstan.

MILANI: One of the most interesting aspects of these presidential debates and campaigning by these seven candidates is that there is virtually unanimous agreement amongst them that Iran should continue with its enrichment activity. So there is, I believe, much more consensus around the nuclear issue than there is about a lot of other important foreign policy and domestic policy among these seven candidates.

But the key -- I think the key to the -- it's an excellent question that you asked -- is that I believe Ayatollah Khamenei has been rather prepared in the past year or so to reach some sort of compromise with the West. I've written about this and I've said it publicly. This is my analysis of his intention, and of course it is subjective. So it is very ironic that if he can have a candidate that he trusts, if it is Velayati or Jalili -- I think these are probably the two closest advisers to him -- if one of those two win, I think Ayatollah Khamenei is going to feel much more comfortable to reach some sort of agreement with the West.

And ironically, the candidate that I think is the closest in the reform camp, Mr. Rouhani, if he wins, I think it is very likely that Ayatollah Khamenei might not be as flexible about reaching a compromise with the West as he would be if one of his own candidates or one of the candidates that has views similar to him win.

Regarding the question of whether Mr. Rouhani can win or not, I think at this time I don't believe he has been able to generate a great deal of enthusiasm. He has not been able to attract the attention of that large constituency I alluded to earlier. And it also depends on whether he can have clear, unambiguous endorsement by Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani. If he gets those two endorsements, he might be able to actually win. But I agree with Hooman that it is going to be extremely difficult for the Islamic Republic to try to repeat what happened in 2009, so there might be less willingness on their part to cheat the election this time.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Lisa Beyer, Bloomberg News.

QUESTIONER: On the nuclear issue, after the election -- I want to sort of turn the focus around 180 degree. Do you guys have any thoughts about what the U.S. posture or the posture of the -- of Iran's interlocutors should be in terms of what they should offer Iran to get a deal? What should the -- depending on what the outcome of the Iranian election is.

MAJD: I don't think it's dependent on the outcome of the election so much. I think it's pretty clear, and as Mohsen has pointed out, that all the candidates, and in fact, any politician in Iran, I would say even some of the most die-hard oppositionists, are probably in favor of maintaining Iran's right to enrich uranium. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that they want to enrich at this level that they're enriching. It doesn't necessarily mean that they would never suspend any form of enrichment. Those are some subtle differences between a hard-liner, perhaps, and a more liberal Iranian politician.

But in terms of the right to enrich, I think if that is not recognized, there will be no nuclear deal. I think that is something that is absolutely crucial and -- for the Iranians. And I think it's across, actually, political -- the political spectrum. I don't think any Iranian politician wants to be the person who is going to admit that Iran does not have the right to enrich uranium. It's a -- it's a nationalist issue. It's a patriotic issue. It goes back to this, the oil nationalization of 1953, the same sentiments, being dictated to by the West, so on and so forth, national security issues. I just don't think there's any politician who'll accept that. So I think that the realization is there, at least among -- on the Obama administration's part, that that is something that may have to be finally recognized in order for there to be real progress, to get down to the nitty-gritty of how many centrifuges, how much uranium is kept and so on and so forth. But if that right is not recognized, neither the supreme leader nor any of his advisers nor any candidate currently in the race would suggest that that right should be given up, even temporarily given up, to be acquired again later.

So I think that in that sense, the nuclear issue is -- if the Obama administration is very serious about coming to some sort of deal with the Iranian -- and with the toxic Ahmadinejad gone, with the rhetoric of, you know, Israel and the Holocaust gone, it may be a little bit easier, no matter who the president is in Iran, just to not have that toxicity. So that's the way I view it.

MILANI: I think for any Iranian politician, for any Iranian leader who does not want to accept, who does not emphasize Iran's right to enrich as a sovereign right, is tantamount to committing political suicide. No political leader in Iran can even dare to agree with complete cessation of all enrichment activities. I think this is something that all politicians recognize, and it reflects in their campaign slogans, it reflects in their campaign of what they have pledged to do. So I think this is the minimum that the Obama administration can offer.

But there is something else that they can also offer, and that would be something that they can discuss with Iran not in terms of the negotiation between the Islamic Republic and the group of five plus one, but in terms of direct unconditional negotiations between Iran and the United States. I think the key to solving the Iranian nuclear problem is not through the five plus one; it is through the door of direct negotiation between the Islamic republic and Washington.

And if they decide to take that route, then I think the issue of what Iran can do in terms of helping the U.S. deal with some of major regional issues, and for the two countries to begin to emphasize on the commonalities they have, I think that would be the way to address the nuclear issue. Iran does have a great deal of common goals with the U.S. in Afghanistan, especially when the U.S. troops withdraw in -- from Afghanistan in December 2014. They do share some common goals in Iraq. And ironically, I submit to you that they also have some common goals in Syria. Both Iran and the U.S. as well as Russia do not want to see the revival of al-Qaida activities in Syria; therefore, along with discussion about Iran's nuclear activities, I think it would be prudent for Washington to begin to talk to Iran about these important regional issues.

MAJD: I would agree a hundred percent, And I think Mohsen brings up a very good point about Syria. I would agree a hundred percent. Other than the person of al-Assad himself, I think Iran's goals and Israel's goals and the U.S. goals in Syria are probably the same other than Assad himself. And Iran seems to have been, at least on a few occasions, flexible even on that, in terms of, well, we don't want him to leave now, but, you know, when there are elections, then, you know, when there are presidential elections in 2014 -- so anyway, I think that's a very important key as well in terms of regional issues where the United States can have common ground with Iran. And by talking, some of these issues can be solved rather than just fester or actually become bigger problems than they probably should be -- for the United States, I mean.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Tim Witcher, AFP.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. You kind of answered parts of my question already, but I -- can I widen a little bit? Will the Syria conflict have any -- has it had any impact on the choosing of the candidates by a supreme leader? And will it -- will it have any impact on the nuclear issue later on? Will they, you know, stay under the radar because of what's happening in Syria because they don't want to conflict with the U.S. and the West?

MAJD: That's a -- I mean, I don't know. It's a -- it's a very difficult question to answer in terms of whether it will have an effect on the nuclear issue. But I think that in terms of choosing the candidates, no, I think there's a -- there isn't actually a consensus among the Iranian leadership on what to do about Syria. The few remaining reformist media outlets in Iran that are allowed to publish have actually questioned Iranian policy in Syria, not necessarily the Iranian policy to support Assad or at least support the government against the die-hard rebels, but in terms of whether Iran is acting in its pure national interest here in supporting someone who may indeed end up being -- putting all their eggs in one basket, end up being overthrown.

So I would say there is probably a little bit of -- a little bit of distance between some of the candidates on that. I don't think that was a factor, again, because the supreme leader knows, as do the Revolutionary Guards, that they are in complete control in -- of that policy and that the president has virtually nothing to do with Iran's involvement in Syria, or at least will have no effect on Iranian involvement in Syria.

In terms of whether they should be connected, the Syrian conflict and the nuclear issue, I mean, I think that's something that they can be. The question is whether the United States wants to do that. I think the Iranians have always suggested that they would like to have broader discussions not just about the nuclear issue but about regional issues. It's well-documented they have repeatedly said that.

And I think that we have tended not to -- in a few instances, we've done things like have the U.S. ambassador to Iraq deal with the Iranian ambassador to Iraq, specifically on Iraqi issues, but the Iranians would, I think, at this point like to widen the discussion -- the potential discussion with the United States on a bunch of regional issues.

MILANI: I think when it comes to Iranian foreign policy in general, the next president can have very profound impact on various aspects, except when it comes to the question of Syria. I think this is a very important issue, a very important issue for Ayatollah Khamenei because Iran has invested more on Hezbollah in the past 30 years than any other entity outside of Iran. Hezbollah is Iran's most important vital strategic asset. And in Lebanon, in Hezbollah-dominated area, it is the only area outside of Iran where Ayatollah Khamenei is the recognized source of emulation. He is the (marja-i taqlid ?) for the Lebanese Shiite. And therefore, what happens in Syria has a -- Ayatollah Khamenei has a personal interest in what is taking place in Syria.

And if you pay attention to the debates, none of the candidates have even tried to address the issue of Iranian policy towards Syria because of the extreme sensitivity of this issue. I think it is one of those areas where Iran's policy is determined, is decided and is imposed by the office of the supreme leader.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Garrett Mitchell, Mitchell Report.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. I want to ask a question about the role of the presidency in Iranian politics and come at it from a slightly different point of view. I'll begin by saying that both in this conversation and in virtually all the prior ones that I think I've been involved in in some way or another, I keep hearing two points of view. One is, the president really makes very little difference on policy and related issues, and the president can make a significant difference. And perhaps that's just the nature of Iranian politics, but it seems to me those two things are sort of at war with each other.

If instead of opining about what difference the election of the next president might make, if you look back over the last eight years, on truly substantive issues, where did the Ahmadinejad presidency change policy or change course in Iran?

MAJD: I think you -- I mean, was the question where did Ahmadinejad change policy or change course?

QUESTIONER: Yeah.

MAJD: Well, I mean I think he has certainly changed course on the nuclear issue, in terms of what they call the resistance ideology, no compromise. I mean, when Manouchehr Mottaki was his first foreign minister, he said to me -- Mottaki, in New York, said to me the era of compromise is over, no more compromise. He specifically said that. I think I wrote about that in -- I can't remember who for, maybe the New York Observer. So I think it was very clear that he was going to not compromise at all.

And they in fact immediately started the centrifuges running and kept building and building and building more and more, and they're up to 17,000 now. And when Ahmadinejad took office, I think they had about, you know, less than a hundred centrifuges spinning, or capable of even spinning. They actually weren't spinning at that time. So I think there has been a difference in the foreign policy and he has had an effect.

And I think the other effect that he's had is to turn the world against him by repeatedly doing things like questioning the Holocaust, denying the Holocaust, having a Holocaust conference -- Holocaust deniers conference in Tehran under the guidance of the Foreign Ministry, Manouchehr Mottaki's Foreign Ministry.

I mean, it's changed dramatically in terms of how the West views Iran, or at least how Western politicians view Iran and how they can deal with Iran. I mean, you look at the Canadian embassy closing in 2012. That would have been unthinkable under Khatami for the Canadians to close down an embassy and other European nations to reduce their staff or withdraw their ambassadors. Look at the way the French have reacted to Iranian foreign policy. I think that he's had a dramatic effect. And I think -- as I mentioned earlier, I think this toxic atmosphere that surrounds him, this -- the sort of Tourette's that he has, political Tourette's, of being -- just, you know, shooting off and saying things that are so offensive to so many people that he makes it impossible, almost, for some Western leaders, I think, to deal or negotiate with Iran and his Foreign Minister.

So I think he has had a big effect. But in terms of your larger question about the paradox that the president at the -- simultaneously has no effect and does have effect, I think that's just one of those Iranian paradoxes and the system of government that they have where both statements are true.

MILANI: I think Ahmadinejad in the past eight years clearly changed the -- Iran's nuclear policy in that Iran became much more hard-liner in dealing with the West. There is no question about that. But I think he also changed the tenor and tone of Iranian foreign policy. And that, I think, is very, very important in this age of instant communication and information.

Iran became much more confrontational. And I think in the past eight years Mr. Ahmadinejad has undermined Iranian national interest, and even the interests of the Islamic Republic, more so than any leader I know of in the past 30 years and perhaps even in the past 100 years. His expertise during the past eight years was to create enemies for Iran, for the Iranians and for the Islamic Republic.

And -- but he also changed the tone and tenor of internal politics in Iran. He introduced a new kind of populism -- Islamic popularism that is not based on support from the clerics.

And finally, most importantly, he singlehandedly was able to establish a new way of subsidizing people, which -- something that has -- that never happened in Iran before. He lifted subsidies and started paying cash -- direct cash to the people in Iran. And I think this was a major, major accomplishment for him, and none of the candidates, none of the eight -- seven presidential candidates have declared their intention to reverse this policy. So internally, I think his ability to lift subsidies and establish direct cash subsidies was a major achievement of his eight years in office.

ROSE: OK. I think we have time for one last question, Operator.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our last question will from Jonathan Broder, Congressional Quarterly.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks for doing this. You know -- (audio interference) --

OPERATOR: One moment, please. (Pause.) Mr. Broder, go ahead.

QUESTIONER: OK. Congress is getting ready to pass another round of sanctions against Iran, yet another round. And I was wondering how much of an obstacle or political point this is for the candidates in the election. In other words, have any of the seven candidates mentioned these rounds of sanctions as indicating that the United States is not really interested in negotiating a nuclear deal and that the ultimate aim is really just regime change?

MAJD: Well, they have mentioned it, and the sanctions have been mentioned quite a bit. That is the view of the supreme leader, and a couple of them have mentioned that and reiterated that these sanctions are -- particularly people like Jalili -- the sanctions are meant to undermine the republic and so on and so forth.

But I think that the view is -- the sanctions -- or additional sanctions on Iran are not going to be helpful. That's my personal view in terms of any kind of negotiations with the West on the nuclear issue, or certainly with the United States, but not just on the -- in terms of the nuclear negotiations, but also in terms of other regional issues that have been mentioned, Syria and possibly Iraq and Afghanistan, and even places like Bahrain, where potentially there could be -- there could be an uprising -- another uprising in the next year or two.

So I think that sanctions are not helpful at this point. I think even the U.S. administration -- even John Kerry has mentioned that sanctions -- additional sanctions beyond what the administration is imposing on Iran are not helpful to American diplomacy. And I think that's -- I mean, certainly to me it's very clear that they're not, and they -- it gives ammunition to the hardest of the hard-liners in Iran to say exactly what you said, that the -- that there isn't any kind of real desire on the part of America to come to a nuclear agreement with Iran or an agreement on the nuclear issue, but in fact that the sole purpose of these sanctions and the goal is to undermine the republic, bring it to its knees, so that it can -- so that there can be a regime change or that it can be undermined to the point where Iran is so weak that it can't do anything to counter American action in the Middle East.

MILANI: I think there is absolutely no question that the imposed sanctions have devastated the Iranian economy and have made life quite difficult for ordinary Iranians. However, if the intention of sanctions was to change the nuclear posture of Iran, it has failed, because if you look at the number of centrifuges Iran had eight years ago with the number of centrifuges Iran has today, you see a direct correlation. The tougher the sanctions became, the more centrifuges began to be spent in Iran. It does not change the -- it has not so far changed the political calculation of the Islamic Republic of Iran when it comes to its nuclear policy.

But in terms of the candidates, I think -- and I have watched all three presidential candidates; I've spent about 12 hours of my time -- sometime they were quite boring, but at times they were quite informative -- I think the only candidate that I think was quite clear that he is going -- try his best to negotiate with the West and try to lift the sanctions -- (well ?), Hassan Rouhani. He does have the credibility in that regards, and I think he's the one candidate with the wisdom, with the experience and with the background to try to reach an agreement with the West, so that the sanctions can be lifted soon.

ROSE: Well, we hope that our phone calls are informative without being boring. To ensure that, we want to keep it within the official time limits. So thank you, Mohsen. Thank you, Hooman. Thank all of you for participating.

And the good news with Iran, of course, is the story will continue, and hopefully we'll bring everybody back together for further discussions on this down the road.

Thank you very much.

MAJD: Thank you. Thank you.

MILANI: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen, at this time this conference is now concluded. You may disconnect your phone lines, and have a great rest of the week. Thank you.

ROSE: Thank you.

MILANI: Thank you.

MAJD: Thank you, Gideon.

MILANI: Thank you, Gideon. Thank you, Hooman.

MAJD: Thank you, Mohsen. Thank you.

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