By Nader Habibi
The population of Iranian community in North America and Europe is approximately two million. The voter participation rate of this community might have an impact on the outcome of Iran's presidential election if the gap between reformist and conservative votes inside Iran proves to be small. The majority of expatriate Iranians, however, have ignored the presidential elections in the past for a variety of reasons.
Some believe that since the government screens the candidates and only the supporters of the Islamic regime are allowed to compete, the elections are artificial and pointless. They believe that the outcome of the election will not make any difference in government policy and people's welfare. Others believe that participation in the election will legitimize the Islamic regime while low voter turn-out will demonstrate people's disapproval of current condition.
For a number of reasons that appear below, it might be in the interest of expatriate Iranian community to participate in June 12 presidential election and such participation will be beneficial for Iran as well. Although neither Mr. Mousavi nor Mr. Karrubi enjoy strong popularity among expatriates, they are viewed as more progressive and more moderate in comparison to Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Rezaie. It is therefore reasonable to predict that majority of expatriate Iranians who vote will favor one of the moderate candidates that are running against Mr. Ahmadinejad. The following arguments are based on the assumption that expatriate vote will increase the chance of the victory for a moderate candidate.
First, there are visible differences in the positions of the four candidates on domestic and foreign policy which cannot be ignored. The reformist candidates have called for a more moderate foreign policy which will put an end to the provocative statements of President Ahmadinejad. A change in the tone of Iran's foreign policy will help improve the world opinion about Iran and improve its image. A more moderate and rational foreign policy will not only improve Iran's bargaining position in future negotiations with the West over its nuclear program, but it will also be good for the expatriate community which is indirectly affected by the world opinion about Iran.
Second, economic mismanagement and pursuit of populist economic policies by Mr. Ahmadinejad have taken a toll on Iran's economy. Both moderate candidates have promised to restore economic stability. Furthermore, a more rational foreign policy, (that a moderate president is more likely to adopt), will reduce the risk of more severe economic sanctions by Western powers. It will also increase confidence in the economy by reducing the risk of military operations against Iran. As a result private investors will have more confidence in domestic investment opportunities.
Third, as several political activists and commentators have acknowledged in recent weeks, a low voter turnout by advocates of democracy and human rights will not bring Iran any closer to democracy. Voter apathy among moderate and secular voters will simply increase the likelihood that a conservative candidate will win the election. On the other hand victory of a reformist candidate might revitalize Iran's reform movement and pave the way for political reforms.
Fourth, by participating in presidential elections the expatriate community will demonstrate to the government that it is a relevant voting block which should not be ignored. The voting power of the expatriates can convince the future administrations in Iran to pay more attention to the interests of expatriate Iranians. This attention can translate into better services in Iranians embassies and consulates. It can also discourage the occasional (politically motivated) harassment and arrest of expatriates that visit Iran.
* Nader Habibi teaches economics at Brandeis University
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