AFP: The United States has not waited for the first ballot to be cast before dismissing Iran’s presidential election as rigged and exhorting the Iranian people to rise up for democratic reform. US officials took no pains to hide their concern after Iran’s hardline clerical regime barred more than 1,000 hopefuls from next Friday’s poll and narrowed the field to a handful of mostly conservative candidates.
WASHINGTON – The United States has not waited for the first ballot to be cast before dismissing Iran’s presidential election as rigged and exhorting the Iranian people to rise up for democratic reform.
US officials took no pains to hide their concern after Iran’s hardline clerical regime barred more than 1,000 hopefuls from next Friday’s poll and narrowed the field to a handful of mostly conservative candidates.
“There are questions about an election where it’s the mullahs, the unelected few, who are really the ones that make the decision about who can actually run,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday.
Iran, a member of President George W. Bush’s famous “axis of evil,” has long been in the US cross-hairs for its alleged support of terrorism and suspected plans to develop nuclear weapons.
But in recent months the Bush administration has stepped up its rhetoric over Iran’s domestic situation, lambasting the mullahs as unyielding despots and coming close to advocating regime change.
Bush raised eyebrows in February when he used his State of the Union address to address a message directly to the Iranian people: “As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you.”
Having cut off diplomatic relations and virtually all economic ties since the US hostage crisis in Tehran a quarter century ago, the Americans have little leverage with the Iranian government.
But US officials said they were moving quietly since late last year to provide some 4.5 million dollars in aid to opposition and pro-democracy groups outside Iran while boosting broadcasts into the country.
A million dollars was given to a US-based human rights group compiling a data base on abuses in Iran. Another 500,000 dollars for data gathering was channeled through the National Endowment for Democracy set up by Congress.
The US government has authorized a further three million dollars to spread the word and is currently reviewing proposals submitted by dozens of groups, officials said.
Gregg Sullivan, spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, said the United States was taking care not to establish direct links with any particular people or organizations inside the Islamic Republic.
“For the US to embrace any viewpoint regarding events inside of Iran is essentially tantamount to labeling the Iranian ahderents of the same viewpoint agents of the Great Satan,” Sullivan told AFP.
He said this would “basically put bullseyes on their heads and label them for arrest, harassment, intimidation, possibly even death. It’s a very dangerous game and we know that.”
Some analysts such as Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, also suggested that even reform-minded Iranians might resent any preaching from the United States.
“Iranian voters, Iranian citizens, are fairly pro-US but I am not sure that means they need Mr. Bush’s rhetoric or that it really helps,” O’Hanlon said.
US officials have little rooting interest among the eight candidates vying to replace President Mohammad Khatami, whose reform efforts over eight years in office were largely thwarted by the conservative clerics.
They said so-called centrists such as the frontrunner Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani were moderate only in Iranian terms and would be unlikely to buck the mullahs for real change.
One official said administration analysts were struggling to develop a policy line on the election, which comes 16 months after parliamentary polls that excluded thousands of would-be reform candidates.
“The debate that continues to rage is whether there is any other outcome that can be viewed as advantageous short of a complete opening of the political system,” said the official, who asked not to be named.
One possibility, he added, was to hope for a low turnout to send a signal that a sizeable chunk of the Iranian electorate saw the exercise as meaningless and change impossible under the existing structure.
Washington has already been drawing a contrast with the Iranian elections and democratic developments in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Palestinian territories.
“The world needs to recognize and needs to say to the Iranians that they are thoroughly out of step with what’s going on in the larger region,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday.