New Brunswick, NJ – The man who wants to be the next president of Iran sits in a hotel lobby, steps from his office and thousands of miles away from the country he wants to lead, a distance surpassed only by the hurdles he needs to clear even to land on the ballot.
Hooshang Amirahmadi, a bespectacled professor of public policy at Rutgers University, declared his candidacy for the Iranian presidency last year. He’s now well into a quixotic quest that has taken him on fundraising jaunts from New York to California to Dubai and, finally, to Iran next month.
Amirahmadi, 65, has lived in the United States for 40 years, calling it “my country.” He married his wife here, and his daughter was raised in New Jersey. But he feels compelled to run for office in Iran to reconcile the conflict he and other Iranian-Americans feel within.
“I feel like, you know, it’s not easy to be an Iranian originally and be here, and be a citizen of this country, and see the two sides of you fight each other every day,” Amirahmadi said.
Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was elected to his second term in 2009 in an election that sparked pro-democracy protests. He is not eligible to run again.
Under Ahmadinejad, Iran has increasingly become defiant over its nuclear program, refusing to bow to Western pressure and sanctions. Ahmadinejad has also said that Israel must be “wiped off the map” and has hurled bizarre accusations against Western countries, including that they caused a drought in Iran.
Years ago, Amirahmadi’s now 21-year-old daughter asked why the two countries couldn’t get along. The professor said he was moved by her question. He founded the nonprofit American Iranian Council and started working to smooth diplomatic relations between the countries.
Even though he is already a behind-the-scenes player, Amirahmadi’s candidacy is a long shot. He and all Iranian presidential candidates must be approved by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s Guardian Council ahead of the June election. His American citizenship, along with his beliefs, including freedom of the press and a government based on “rationalism” rather than religion, may immediately disqualify him.
“This is not a serious candidacy at all,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a professor of political science at Syracuse University. “He has no chance whatsoever getting an OK from the Guardian Council. Indeed, his American citizenship will disqualify him easily.”
Amirahmadi said he has dual American and Iranian citizenship.
The head of the Guardian Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, said this month that Iranian elections are the “freest in the world” and that candidates will be chosen in accordance with the law.
A U.N. investigator said this month that there are widespread human rights abuses in Iran and expressed concern that torture and increased crackdowns on activists, journalists and lawyers could undermine the fairness of the election.
Waving off the skeptics, Amirahmadi is confident he will be approved. He has spoken with members of the council about his presidency, but not the supreme leader. He thinks that his years working in both the U.S. and Iran – he goes back about once a year and has worked on various projects in the country – put him in a rare position to broker deals.
“The Islamic Republic could not go to the God tomorrow and say, `Create a human being for me with these particular characteristics, who’s a bridge builder, a peacemaker and an economic developer all in one,'” Amirahmadi said of himself, stressing that he is not aligned with any of the country’s political factions.
“I have probably the best chance to bring them together,” he said of the U.S. and Iran.
He thinks most issues between Iran and the United States can be solved through diplomacy and restoration of trust. Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran ended with the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, when the American Embassy was overtaken by protesters opposed to the Iranian monarchy that was installed by a CIA-led coup. American diplomatic workers were held hostage for 444 days.
Iran, he said, has a right to have nuclear enrichment facilities. The solution is getting the West to trust the country.
“I don’t believe the problem is nuclear enrichment,” he said. “The problem is lack of trust.”
Amirahmadi has spent his candidacy courting people like himself – Iranian expatriates. He has crisscrossed the globe, looking to raise money and secure votes among a group that can cast ballots in the Iranian election. He spent five hours answering questions from a receptive group on a Reddit Ask-Me-Anything forum last month.
But creating a single voting bloc from a large, multifaceted worldwide community is difficult.
For some, any kind of engagement with the government, including voting, would be tantamount to accepting the regime, said Naghmeh Sohrabi, an assistant professor of Middle East History at Brandeis University.
“There’s quite a huge number of people outside Iran who think that any kind of engagement with the government is a way of giving the government legitimacy,” Sohrabi said.
If anything, Amirahmadi’s campaign could spark a conversation in Iranian communities worldwide about how they want to engage with the homeland – and potentially bring about a new type of politics.
“How does one engage a diaspora community with a regime that many people outside of Iran think is illegitimate?” Sohrabi asked.
Iranian elections are extremely competitive, but there is little transparency when it comes to campaign finance.
Amirahmadi concedes his campaign is small. He has raised between $55,000 and $60,000 in the United States and about $80,000 in Dubai. A few friends – especially in Dubai – have given donations of $10,000 or more, but most are $10 contributions that trickle in.
Amirahmadi said he has appeared on satellite television in Iran, which is beamed in from outside the country to avoid censors. He plans to travel to the country early next month to lay the groundwork for the grassroots campaign, and wants to appoint a female campaign manager. He was last there in 2012.
“My hope is to go back to Iran and make a splash,” he said.