On the eve of Iran's presidential election, President Bush yesterday denounced Tehran's theocracy for manipulating the vote by eliminating candidates and ignoring the "basic requirements" of democracy. Whatever the election's outcome, power will continue to be held by "an unelected few" who are out of step with political changes sweeping the rest of the region, Bush said in a statement released by the White House.
The tough White House comment comes at a pivotal juncture in U.S.-Iranian relations and in Iran's political evolution. Seven candidates are vying today to replace President Mohammad Khatami, the reformist whose two-term tenure is ending without significantly changing the world's only modern theocracy. The next government will be in charge of negotiating with leaders of other nations on Iran's nuclear capability, a process -- currently deadlocked -- designed to ensure that Tehran cannot produce a nuclear weapon from its peaceful energy program.
The Bush administration struggled during its first term to develop a detailed Iran policy -- and to decide whether to promote the same kind of "regime change" it sought in Saddam Hussein's Iraq or to tighten the squeeze on Tehran to prod reform. The White House statement yesterday came down particularly hard on Iran and pledged that the United States will stand with the Iranian people as they struggle for freedom -- language reminiscent of the prewar talk on Iraq. Yet the statement fell short of suggesting that Washington is seeking a regime change.
"Today, Iran is ruled by men who suppress liberty at home and spread terror across the world," Bush said. "Power is in the hands of an unelected few who have retained power through an electoral process that ignores the basic requirements of democracy. The June 17th presidential elections are sadly consistent with this oppressive record."
Addressing the Iranian people, Bush added: "As you stand for your own liberty, the people of America stand with you."
Praising the ancient Persian civilization, Bush said Iranians deserve elections that put in power leaders who "answer to them instead of the other way around." The president also cited the "enormous gains" recently achieved in the Middle East, noting the democratic elections in Iraq and Afghanistan, which both border Iran, as well as this year's elections in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
"Across the Middle East, hopeful change is taking place. People are claiming their liberty. And as a tide of freedom sweeps this region, it will also come eventually to Iran," Bush predicted.
Bush's statement followed other stern rebukes of Iran by several senior U.S. officials over the past two months -- rebukes that have been coupled with overtures to Iran's 68 million people. Together they signal a more aggressive U.S. campaign to prod political change in Tehran, a State Department official said yesterday.
In a call-in session with the Voice of America's Persian television program, the State Department's democracy czar Elizabeth Cheney said Wednesday that the United States seeks "significant changes" in Iran and supports the "bravery" of the Iranian people. In a Voice of America radio program in Persian last week, Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, criticized Iran for its clampdown on the media, restrictions on the formation of political parties and limits on women's rights.
Yet at her first full news conference yesterday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice indicated that Washington is not -- for now -- seeking the overthrow of the ruling clerics. She said Iran's political trends are moving backward, compared with earlier elections that offered more options. Rice also said that any vote in which candidates are handpicked is unlikely to produce improvement. More than 1,000 of the candidates who applied to run for president, including all the women, were disqualified by Iran's Council of Guardians, a group of clerics and Islamic scholars.
The United States is also concerned about Iran's unusual political system, in which traditional secular branches of government have parallel religious institutions that effectively have veto power.
Yet Rice pointedly noted that the United States will be watching the new government's actions to determine its policy. "We will be watching along with everybody else after the Iranian elections take place to see whether or not the Iranians are ready to commit to a course that puts them more in step with what is going on in the region," she said.
Rice set out four conditions for changing a quarter-century of tensions dating to the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy, when 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days. Washington wants Tehran to open up politically; to pledge not to seek a nuclear weapon under cover of a civilian energy program; to become "transparent and good neighbors" of Iraq and Afghanistan; and to stop supporting extremist groups, which she called a critical step in achieving Middle East peace.
"If the Iranians are prepared to start on that course, then . . . we'd be in a different set of circumstances than we are now," Rice said.
But the White House faces pressure from its own supporters for tougher action. The administration should provide aid for Iranian opposition groups and spotlight jailed dissidents, journalists and student leaders, said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "Now is the moment when [Bush] needs to actually give his word meaning," she said. "It has taken too long."