The next president of the Islamic Republic of Iran lives in a large and beautiful home in central New Jersey. He speaks English with only the slightest accent, and hanging on his walls are pictures of him shaking hands with American public figures, including Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and Joe Biden. On his coffee table lies a copy of Chuck Hagel’s book, America: Our Next Chapter. He attended an Ivy League college, just as his daughter does now.
Okay . . . Hooshang Amirahmadi may not actually win the Iranian presidential election, which is scheduled for June. The first step for a candidate is to register with Iran’s Ministry of Interior. Then, a few weeks before the election, Iran’s Guardian Council will approve or disapprove each of the registered candidates. Only after clearing the Guardian Council — which Amirahmadi didn’t do when he tried to run for the same office in 2005 — can a candidate begin campaigning in public, and attempting to convince the Iranian people that he’s the right man for the job.
And that is what Hooshang Amirahmadi hopes to do. He models himself on Deng Xiaoping, who set out to reform Communist China from the inside. When I interviewed him recently, Amirahmadi explained that there are four types of politicians in Iran: those who support the current regime and believe that everything is basically okay; those who oppose the regime and want to overthrow it; those who want to work within the system to reform Iran, but only after the regime meets certain conditions (freeing political prisoners and amending the constitution, among others); and those who want to reform the government but aren’t waiting for conditions to be met. Amirahmadi belongs in the last camp. He summarizes his stance thus: “Keep the regime, change the country.”
And Hooshang Amirahmadi just might have the right résumé for that daunting task. An Iranian native who holds both Iranian and U.S. citizenship, he received his Ph.D. in planning and international development from Cornell and is a professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. (Full disclosure: I am currently a graduate student at the Bloustein School, though I have never taken a course with Dr. Amirahmadi.) His academic research has focused on Iran, and he teaches courses on economic development, globalization, and public policy. He is the director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) at Rutgers, and is the founder and president of the American Iranian Council.
If Amirahmadi’s name sounds familiar, it’s because it was in the news in connection with Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense. Hagel has given several speeches at Rutgers over the past few years (he was an adjunct professor there in 2010), including a speech that CMES sponsored. According to one account of that speech, Hagel made some impolitic statements about Israel; however, others who were there dispute that account. To further the case against Hagel, some in the conservative media have tried to build a case against Amirahmadi (as if speaking at a major American university at the invitation of an influential academic was a disqualification for the Defense Department). Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal linked him to the Iranian regime, and Charles Johnson of The Daily Caller called him a “pro-Hezbollah, pro-Hamas candidate for the Iranian presidency” and “a man linked to Iranian-controlled front groups.” He does indeed have connections to the Alavi Foundation, which the federal government has called a front for the Iranian regime. The allegations of being pro-Hamas and pro-Hezbollah stem from a 2009 news report in the New York Post, which quotes him as saying that “neither Hezbollah nor Hamas are terrorist organizations.”
To journalists working extra hours trying to prove Amirahmadi’s links to the Iranian regime, I would have said that running for president of Iran was a sufficient link.
With regard to his alleged support for Hamas and Hezbollah, Amirahmadi repeatedly referred to both of them as terrorist organizations during his interview with me, and he offered an astute analysis of Iran’s connection to both groups. (See below, the paragraph beginning, “The Revolution also stands between Israel and Iran.”) He also spoke of his wish for Iran to make peace with Israel and return to something like the two nations’ relationship under the shah’s reign, and he expressed his support for a two-state solution.
No, in the unlikely event that Amirahmadi wins in June, he is not about to scrap the Iranian regime in its entirety and replace it with a shining city on the Persian Gulf. But he does offer a serious diagnosis of Iran’s problems, and a possible solution.
Iran faces three major problems, according to Amirahmadi, and the ayatollahs are well aware of them. The first is the factional infighting within Iranian politics. “Iran has come to a point where it’s difficult for a candidate within the system to do anything different,” he explains. “Infighting is at a climax,” and instead of being “political rivals,” Iranian politicians are “political enemies.” The “government is a tribal society,” with a shrinking elite; there is nobody the elite could choose to be president who will be acceptable to the other factions in the government. Conveniently, Amirahmadi knows just the man who could break this logjam.