Mehdi Yahyanejad led a live discussion with Siyavosh Safavi, Surena Hashemi, and Ahmad Medadi on the potential impact of President Obama’s re-election victory on Iran.
Yahyanejad began by giving an overview of the US presidential election system. He explained that the presidential race is in fact decided by the 538-member Electoral College rather than by the popular vote. The number of electors in each state equals the combined number of that state’s Senators and Representatives in the U.S. Congress. The popular vote on Election Day endorses the electors who then vote for the Presidential and Vice Presidential ticket. [At least 270 electoral votes are needed to win the election.] Most states [except Maine and Nebraska] have a winner-take-all system. For instance, if Obama wins 60% of the vote in California which has 50 electoral votes he wins all 50 electoral votes. To be nominated, candidates go through the process of the primary elections and party caucuses organized by state and local governments. The requirements for winning nomination, including the need to rally support nationwide, are so challenging as to eliminate the need for filtering the candidates by an institution such as the Guardian Council in Iran, which endorses a few out of the many that have the right to run simply by showing a national ID card. The U.S. Congress is composed of the Senate, which has 100 members, two from each state, and the House of Representatives, which has 435 members proportionate to the population of each state. The consent of both chambers is required for a bill to become law, and the President has veto power. At present, the Senate has a Democratic majority while the House is controlled by Republicans. In such a scenario, reaching agreement can be arduous and time-consuming. This in turn slows the pace of change and inhibits the passage of radical laws. This contrasts with parliamentary systems such as in the UK where the ruling party has the parliamentary majority and elects the Prime Minister, which makes it easier to enact legislation and bring about fundamental changes in the country. In the U.S., individuals and organizations may donate up to $2,500 to a presidential candidate directly, but there is no limit to donations to a PAC (Political Action Committee), which is obliged by law to spend its funds independently of any particular campaign. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations may also make campaign contributions within the same limit as individuals. In answer to the next question, whether Obama’s re-election bodes ill for Iran, and whether a Republican victory would not have been better for Iran, Yahyanejad said Obama has gained cooperation from Europe and Japan in imposing sanctions against Iran—a success that would have eluded a Republican such as George Bush. Obama also ended the Iraq war, which reduces the threat of trouble from Iran. Once he pulls out of Afghanistan, he will have even freer rein in dealing with Iran. Obama’s biggest challenges are domestic: the budget, illegal immigration, and healthcare. Failure to prevent the fiscal cliff will hurt the U.S. economy, while cuts in defense spending will mean closing a number of the U.S. military bases around the world. Most of the roughly 11 million illegal Latino immigrants vote Democrat; giving them citizenship will hurt the Republican Party. Obama’s healthcare plan is scheduled to take effect in 2013-2014; the Republicans may try to prevent it from being executed as planned. Obama’s other challenge is Iran. In the event Iran builds a nuclear bomb, it may threaten Israel via Hezbollah or Hamas. Also, Saudi Arabia and Egypt—even Turkey—may follow suit by building a bomb. Given the potential for political instability due to Islamic fundamentalism, this scenario will make it very difficult for the U.S. to control the Middle East. Still, regime change in Iran does not seem to be on the radar of U.S. foreign policy where the focus remains the nuclear issue. It is therefore likely that sanctions will get tougher, and secondly, that the U.S. will convince China that a nuclear Iran, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey in tow, will destabilize the region. Given that China is more dependent on Middle East oil than the U.S. such a development is not in China’s economic interest. Siyavosh Safavi stated that since the 1960s, Democrats paid attention to the black and Latino vote. The Republicans, on the other hand, focused on white American men; they need to produce more suitable candidates and policies targeting the minorities. Obama will be remembered in history because he was the first black U.S. president, but he has not had a positive effect on the economy. To Yahyanajad’s question about the potential impact of Obama’s re-election victory on Iran and Syria, Safavi replied that in his view, Obama’s foreign policy is effective and highly successful. He has attracted worldwide support and done very well in respect to Iran. He initially offered to negotiate with Khamenei knowing full well that he would be turned down. Consequently, Russia closed ranks with the U.S. Obama’s sanctions program against Iran was highly strategic, starting with sanctions against individuals and gradually moving to the oil sector. Sales are down to only about 700-800,000 barrels a day. Yahyanejad added that by contrast with George Bush, Obama improved relations with Europe, Russia and China. He prevented the U.S. economy from a collapse that was imminent. Growth now stands at 2%, which is substantial considering the volume of the U.S. economy. On the respective positions of Republicans and Democrats vis-à-vis Iran, Safavi recalled that President Carter was greatly responsible for the Islamic Republic’s success and stability. The hostage crisis happened on his watch; and uncharacteristically for a Democrat, he took no action when the religious forces seized power in Iran. Over the last thirty years, no president, Republican or Democrat, has brought as much pressure on Iran as Obama. Surena Hashemi joined the conversation. He said that in reality, the difference between Republican and Democratic positions is not striking. Iranians perceived President Obama and Mitt Romney through the lens of the contest between Ahmadinejad and Moussavi. In fact, they differ in degree and not in kind; they might quarrel over raising or lowering taxes whose affect may not even be deeply felt by ordinary people. But in undemocratic countries like Iran, the contest is between dictatorship and democracy. The next question was, ‘Which of the two parties, Republican or Democratic, could better control Iran’s foreign policy; would things have been different had Romney won the election?’ Ahmad Medadi replied that U.S. foreign policy, especially in the Middle East and Iran, is independent of party affiliation, and is consistent. Romney did not propose a specific solution vis-à-vis Iran and endorsed Obama during the third presidential debate, only repeating that he would use military force if Iran were to attack Israel. Savafi and Medadi had different responses to the next question, which was whether the sanctions are likely to be expanded during Obama’s second term. Safavi said Iran has achieved its goal: its right to nuclear power is no longer questioned, only the percentage of enrichment; but serious negotiations will be picked up only after the Iranian presidential election. Mr. Medadi, responded that while both Iran and Obama had stuck to their positions and achieved their respective goals the tension can no longer be contained and with international powers mobilized against Iran, more sanctions are likely to follow. Concluding remarks Medadi: It is very difficult to predict future developments in Iran, though given its economic conditions and international relations the country faces a difficult year ahead. Safavi: Iran undermines the U.S.’s capacity for sanctios—especially as Iran has no friends in the region—and their impact on the country. Iran is on the verge of collapse; the only question is, at what point will it back off? Hashemi: The only way Iran will back off is if full sanctions are imposed against the oil sector, and the regime’s capacity for domestic oppression and foreign adventures is curtailed. Obama will eventually arrive at the same conclusion.