Widely criticized for muting its initial response to Iran’s 2009 crackdown on post-election protesters, President Barack Obama's administration has been quicker and harder off the mark this time while taking other steps to show its support for ordinary Iranians.
With voting still weeks away, Secretary of State John Kerry harshly chided Iran for its unusual system of vetting presidential candidates. In response to a question at a news conference in Israel on May 24, Kerry said, “I can’t think of anybody in the world looking at Iran’s election who wouldn’t be amazed by a process by which an unelected Guardian Council, which is unaccountable to the Iranian people, has actually disqualified hundreds of candidates, potential candidates, according to very vague criteria, which the Iranian people are not privileged to know or judge by.”
While Kerry went on to say that the Obama administration still hopes for a peaceful resolution of the nuclear dispute with Iran, the tough remarks suggest minimal US optimism that Iran will use the transition from the eight-year presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to pivot on the nuclear front.
Iran’s vetting process means that the June 14 presidential election is “highly unlikely … to represent the broad will of the Iranian people or represent a change of any legitimate kind,” Kerry said.
Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution who has advised the State Department on Iran in the past, said the Obama administration initially toned down its criticism of Iranian actions in 2009 — when the country experienced its biggest spontaneous protest demonstrations since the 1979 Islamic revolution — because it did not want to jeopardize a possible confidence-building deal on the nuclear issue.
Obama had sent two letters to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and was preparing an offer asking Iran to send out most of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium in return for fuel for a research reactor and no new economic sanctions. Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili accepted the deal in principle in October 2009 only to pull back when the agreement faced harsh criticism in Tehran. That criticism came in part from defeated reformist standard-bearer Mir Hossein Mousavi, subsequently put under house arrest with fellow candidate Mehdi Karroubi.
“They leaned back in 2009,” Maloney said, speaking about Obama administration criticism of Iran at a panel on Iranian elections at the Atlantic Council last week [May 30]. “They’re going to lean in this time.”
Asked if the administration has decided to be tougher this time, National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan told Al-Monitor in an email, “Iran’s unelected Guardian Council, which is not accountable to the Iranian people, has disqualified almost 700 potential candidates based on vague criteria. The Council narrowed the list to eight officials based solely on who the regime believes will represent its interests, rather than the interests of the Iranian people. The lack of transparency makes it unlikely that the slate of candidates represents the will of the Iranian people, who should be given every opportunity to choose a president who best embodies their views.”
Meehan added, “We also see troubling signs that the Iranian government is taking steps like slowing or cutting off Internet access — moves that ultimately prevent Iranian citizens from making free and informed choices about the elections. We call on Iranian authorities to abide by their international commitments and allow the Iranian people to exercise their universal rights and freedom of expression.”
Maloney attributed the rise in US outspokenness to two factors. The first, she said, is lack of optimism on the US side that Iran will change its position in the nuclear negotiations with the United States, the other permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany.
There is “a deep sense that there is nothing we can do that can ruin a deal in the works because there simply isn’t one,” Maloney said.
Iran has amassed much larger quantities of low- and medium-enriched uranium since 2009 and is insisting that the US recognize what Iran regards as its right to the full nuclear fuel cycle as well as providing significant sanctions relief. The US and its negotiating partners are demanding major Iranian concessions up front. New talks are unlikely until after Iranian elections in part because chief negotiator Saeed Jalili is a candidate for president.
Maloney said another reason for the shift is the change in regional atmosphere since Arab uprisings began in 2011. The Obama administration quickly decided to bend to popular will in US-allied countries including Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.
“If we’re prepared to throw [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak overboard, we certainly better be prepared to throw any shred of a relationship or any hope of one with Ali Khamenei overboard if Iranians come to the streets again,” Maloney said.
The US is coupling this new readiness to criticize Iran with other steps intended to show its support for the Iranian people.
On Thursday [May 30], the US Treasury Department announced that it was lifting sanctions that have impeded exporting personal communications gear — such as smart phones and laptops — and related software to Iran.
“This General License aims to empower the Iranian people as their government intensifies its efforts to stifle their access to information,” said a statement by State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki. The US also slapped sanctions including visa bans on 60 Iranians, including a senior aide to Khamenei, said to have been involved in abuses of human rights.
At the same time, the Obama administration — reacting to reports that sanctions are impeding the supply of medicine and medical supplies to Iran — dispatched a team of State Department and Treasury officials to Europe last week to stress that sanctions do not bar such exports.
Wendy Sherman, the Undersecretary of State for political affairs who is also the top US representative at P5+1 talks with Iran, told the BBC Persian Service that the US is “so concerned” about the shortages of medicine Iranians have experienced since last year that it “sent a team around the world talking to countries who said they are having difficulty getting their medicines into Iran, because we want to make sure that they don’t think they may get sanctioned by the US if they send medicine to Iran.” Sherman also blamed Iranian “economic mismanagement” for the shortages.
Barbara Slavin is Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, where she focuses on Iran. Slavin, who tweets @BarbaraSlavin1, moderated the panel at which Maloney spoke.