The Biden administration has responded to Iran's mass disqualification of candidates for its upcoming presidential election by saying Iranians should be free to choose their own leaders.
The White House statement coincides with sharp criticism of Iran’s electoral system from Iranian rights activists and U.S. conservatives as neither free nor fair.
Iran's Guardian Council, which vets election candidates, on Tuesday approved a final list of seven contenders for the June 18 vote to replace outgoing two-term President Hassan Rouhani. The 12-member council of jurists and clerics overseen by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei disqualified 583 other people who applied to run in the election, leaving only the seven conservative Khamenei loyalists, of whom judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi is the most prominent.
Asked by VOA Persian for a reaction to the disqualifications, a White House National Security Council spokesperson said, "Iranians should be allowed to exercise their right to choose their own leaders and freely participate in the political process, including during elections."
Iran's unelected Guardian Council has long controlled its presidential and parliamentary election processes by routinely disqualifying candidates based on political or other considerations, according to the State Department's March report on Tehran's human rights record. Khamenei, who has served as supreme leader since 1989, appoints half of the council's members, while the judiciary chief, whom he also appoints, selects the other half.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken declined to express a view about the Iranian election process earlier this month, when a Financial Times reporter asked him how the likely victory of a hard-line candidate would affect indirect U.S. talks with Iran in Vienna concerning a mutual return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
"Look, it's very hard to predict, and certainly, I don't want to get into hypotheticals about what one outcome or another in Iran's elections — what impact that would or wouldn't have on any nuclear negotiations," Blinken told the British newspaper.
U.S. President Joe Biden has said he wants to revive the 2015 deal, in which the U.S. and other world powers offered Iran sanctions relief in return for limits on Iranian nuclear activities that could be weaponized. His predecessor Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, saying it was not tough enough on Iran, and began tightening U.S. sanctions. Iran, which denies seeking nuclear weapons, retaliated in 2019 by starting an ongoing process of exceeding the deal's nuclear restrictions.
Speaking to VOA Persian in a May 20 interview, U.S. Representative David Price, a Democrat and Biden ally, expressed hope that Iran's presidential election will produce a "reasoned leadership" that will agree to resume JCPOA compliance in return for the Biden administration's proposed lifting of some Trump-era sanctions against Tehran.
"I am hopeful that the election does not derail us or make it more difficult to reach agreement," Price said.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sharply criticized the upcoming vote in a May 17 interview with VOA Persian.
"It's going to be fraudulent. It's going to be unfair to have disqualified candidates. It will be a complete joke," said Pompeo, the top Trump diplomat.
Iranian rights activists in Iran and abroad have been using social media in recent weeks to urge fellow Iranians to boycott the vote in protest of the Islamic republic's authoritarian political system and government mismanagement of an economy crippled by U.S. sanctions and a still-severe coronavirus pandemic.
Recent Iranian state-run public opinion surveys have suggested turnout for the June presidential vote could fall below 40% for the first time since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, in which its ruling Shiite clerics seized power from a collapsing monarchy.
"Any time you have lower turnout, it means your election is less representative of the people that you're claiming to rule over," Pompeo told VOA.
'Free and fair'
The Biden administration's less combative messaging on the Iranian election drew support from Atlantic Council analyst Barbara Slavin, an advocate of reviving the JCPOA.
"I don't think the U.S. should or could game Iranian politics. It won't work and would probably only increase Iranian distrust of U.S. motives," Slavin said in a message to VOA Persian. "The best course is to proceed with the Vienna talks and see if Iran will agree to a schedule for a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA."
Heritage Foundation analyst and JCPOA critic James Carafano told VOA Persian that the Biden administration and its supporters' statements about Iran's election are dishonest.
"We all wish that the election would be free and fair and produce a government that was more amenable to a better deal that addresses U.S. vital interests and those of our allies in the region," Carafano said. "But the Biden administration statement (calling for Iran to allow free participation in the vote) is incredibly misleading, because that is not going to happen, and I know that they know that," he said.
A victory for one of the Khamenei loyalist candidates in the election is also likely to "harden the Iranian negotiating position toward the U.S., not the opposite," Carafano said.
Judiciary chief Raisi, considered the favorite by many observers, criticized Rouhani's handling of JCPOA negotiations while running as a candidate in Iran's 2017 election that saw Rouhani win a second term. Raisi accused Rouhani in a televised debate of demonstrating weakness toward world powers.
Raisi maintained his criticism of Rouhani's administration last month, with Iranian state media quoting Raisi as questioning the wisdom of pursuing negotiations with the West while Iran struggles under U.S. sanctions.
"If (some politicians) had dedicated the time they spent on seeking the West's concessions toward boosting domestic production, the problems would have been solved," Raisi said, without mentioning Rouhani by name.
Regardless of who wins the Iranian presidential contest next month, the final decision on whether Iran resumes compliance with its JCPOA commitments rests with Khamenei.