As Iran heads into an election dominated by hardliners, one would-be future president is campaigning from an elegant, wooded US neighborhood accompanied by his dog, a bouncy bichon frise.
Hooshang Amirahmadi, an academic with dual citizenship, acknowledges that he has no chance of winning the June 14 election — he did not even register after clear signs he would be rejected — but insists his quest is not quixotic.
“Is it better to be a parochial guy who doesn’t know anything about the outside world, or someone who has actually lived in the whole world?” said Amirahmadi, strolling in his crisp suit past his sculpture collection on his manicured lawn in Princeton, New Jersey, as Coco, the dog, eagerly ran to him.
“I know my own presidency at this point, given the system in Iran, is a long shot. But I know also that we need to go through the process and work hard and make the system accept that the way things are going in Iran are wrong,” he said.
Amirahmadi, who teaches economic development at Rutgers University and has returned frequently to Iran, said it was crucial for the United States and Iran — which severed diplomatic relations shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution overthrew the pro-Western shah — to build trust.
“The only solution is if both sides were able to modify their views and put on different glasses and view each other with a different lens,” he said.
The United States has ramped up economic sanctions on Iran, imposing a slew of tough measures in the run-up to the election, in response to Western and Israeli charges that the clerical regime may be building a nuclear bomb.
Amirahmadi, whose house is covered with photos of him next to US officials, said that he would be able to convince Washington that Tehran is sincerely committed to a peaceful nuclear program.
“I would have solved the nuclear problem in the first 100 days — done, finished! If I am president of Iran, in the first 100 days I would be in the White House. That’s how you have to do it,” he said.
Amirahmadi acknowledged that supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei controlled much of Iran’s foreign policy but he saw a groundswell of support for reconciliation with the West.
“This is honest — 80 percent of the Iranian people, and 80 percent of the people within the system, want relations with the United States and international community normalized,” he said.
“Yes, Mr. Khamenei still controls (foreign policy), but how long can you stay that course when an increasing number of your people and your administration — people who work for you — are on the other side?” he said.
Amirahmadi, 64, frequently mentions the model of Deng Xiaoping, China’s late paramount leader, who ushered in selected reforms while maintaining the communist system.
But Amirahmadi feared that the US-led sanctions drive — which has crippled Iran’s currency and its key oil industry — has strengthened hardliners who see a nuclear bomb as critical to the regime’s survival.
“The revolution has to change to something different before the US can live with it,” he said, but added: “If you are in Tehran looking at Washington, all you see is negative coming, all you see are policies that are bent to harm you.”
Amirahmadi strongly criticized on moral grounds outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks threatening Israel and questioning the Holocaust. But he suspected that Ahmadinejad’s intention was to open up to Washington by trying to divert hardliners’ anger toward Israel rather than the United States.
“Ahmadinejad made a big tactical mistake,” he said. “He didn’t realize that when you close the Israeli door 100 percent, the American door at least gets 70 percent closed.”
Amirahmadi says he hopes to run again, whatever the odds, and potentially turn his so-called Campaign for a Better Iran into a political party. He boasts that he has a more detailed platform, including on the economy, than any of the eight approved candidates.
Besides the occasional meetings with Iranians around the world, Amirahmadi gets out his message through social media. He runs his campaign from his basement, the walls adorned with his own sketchings of Albert Einstein and Albert Camus.
“Iran has become a nation that is very much global now,” he said. “Every morning you get up Iran is in the news and, unfortunately, most of the time it’s in the news for the wrong reasons. We need to change it.”