An Iranian-American college professor hopes to be Iran's next president. But the motivation for Hooshang Amirahmadi's quixotic campaign is to re-establish trust between the United States and Iran.
In a weeklong registration process that ended Saturday, presidential candidates registered at the Ministry of Interior, where the Guardian Council -- the most influential clerical body in Iran that operates under the watchful eyes of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei -- will assess and announce whom it deems to be qualified nominees in the coming week.
"The biggest challenge right now is the lack of trust, a trust that over time, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has been diminished to zero." Amirahmadi considers trust key to building the future of Iran while re-establishing relations with the United States.
For more three decades Amirahmadi has lived in both the United States and Iran. An economist and scholar, he joined Rutgers University in 1983, where he's currently a professor of planning and international development. Amirahmadi's career took a more public turn in 1997 when he founded the American Iranian Council, a think tank that provides a base for research, analysis and dialogue between the U.S. and Iran.
This would be Amirahmadi's second attempt to enter Iran's presidential election. In 2005 the Guardian Council rejected his candidacy.
If he is rejected, Amirahmadi said this election won't end his decade-long efforts for change.
"I'm building a political organization that will work with others for a better Iran -- an Iran that's friendly with U.S., has a solid economy and democracy, and ultimately an Iran that belongs to the international community."
Amirahmadi is known among many Iranian-Americans in the United States as well as people inside Iran.
"I've heard him talk a lot in satellite programs broadcasting from the U.S.; he used to be very outspoken during President (Mohammad) Khatami's time -- but then what? Nothing happened during (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad," said Mehdi, a student activist in Iran who did not want his last name used.
"I'm sure even if he runs 100 more times, he's going to get rejected by the Guardian Council. It's very obvious the Guardian Council will disqualify him, so really, I don't think there's any difference."
Mehdi participated in the post-election protests four years ago and thinks this election will be another "game" like that of 2009.
As sanctions continue to cripple the Iranian economy and the United States and its allies remain wary of the Islamic regime's unclear nuclear ambitions, Amirahmadi sees himself as a broker. In an April visit to Iran, Amirahmadi met with some intelligence officials and members of the Guardian Council and discussed his candidacy.
"I have been established as someone who can be trusted; I have been always honest and transparent and have been known as a neutral broker -- one who has been able to re-establish the broken trust and dialogue needed to build Iran-U.S. problems," Amirahmadi said.
Amirahmadi discussed his close relations with almost all of Iran's senior government officials as well as his strong association with senior U.S. officials through AIC, saying he has worked with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, current Secretary of State John Kerry and former Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering. Amirahmadi says, "There will never be a resolution to the nuclear issue, the terror issue, the Israel issue, unless there is trust, and I know I can deliver that challenge."
Pickering also finds these issues important, saying, "it's always important when efforts are put into developing dialogue for the betterment of U.S.-Iran relations." Pickering is also an honorary board member of AIC.
But Farideh Farhi, an author and scholar on Iranian and comparative politics, says Iran-U.S. relations are too volatile for any one person to accomplish much. "If anything were to happen, it needs to be through direct talks between the two governments," she said.
"All these people who have come to act as mediators in this process have really not been able to place things in the directions that they should go," said Farhi, an independent scholar who is on the graduate faculty at the University of Hawaii. She said that given Amirahmadi's likely disqualification by the Guardian Council, the focus should be on what happens inside Iran.
"There were moments where Dr. Amirahmadi had strong influence during President Khatami, Clinton and Secretary Albright, but I don't see it at this point," Farhi said.
In March 2000, Amirahmadi's efforts at the American Iranian Council led Albright to deliver a historic speech on Iran in which she expressed regret about the U.S.-backed 1953 coup and past U.S. policy. She also helped lift sanctions on carpets and food items and offered Iran a global settlement that would have restored almost all commercial ties between the two countries. But after then-President Bill Clinton left office, the George W. Bush administration did not carry out the initiative.
In August of that year, Albright's move was regarded by then-President Mohammad Khatami as "a missed opportunity" to normalize relations between the two countries.
Former Sen. J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, who was chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and is an AIC board member, commends Amirahmadi's work and suggests that the Islamic regime and Khamenei -- who is the ultimate keyholder to all decisions -- is not ready to have an Iranian-American in the game.
Johnston acknowledges the lack of trust and direct dialogue between the two countries, but says, "There is some hope that after the election Iran would engage with the U.S. in a serious way on the nuclear issue. We know they won't do it before the election, but whether they will after the election is the big question."
A rocky political landscape
Factions, intense competition and lack of transparency divide Iran's current political landscape. Amirahmadi calls this "an out-of-control power struggle" in which conservatives and moderates are on the margins and "conflict is tearing the regime apart among various internal factions from the right and the newly formed coalitions."
Farhi said the central issue of the election is about how to better manage Iran's economy in the face of crippling sanctions.