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Tehran still undecided on US vote
NEW YORK - With the US presidential elections only five days away, Tehran is preoccupied with the question of who the next Oval Office occupant will be and what that would mean for the future of troubled US-Iran relations.
Over the past couple of weeks the question has gained urgency in the light of recent reports, denied by the White House, regarding back channel talks between Tehran and Washington and Iran's preparedness for one on one negotiations on the nuclear standoff.
Despite the denial, even by President Barack Obama himself (in his third presidential debate with his Republican rival Mitt Romney), the story has gained enough traction on both sides twarrant fresh speculation about renewed "Iran engagement" by a second Obama administration, assuming an Obama victory. The latter is favored by Iran's rulers, who are wary of Romney's warmongering rhetoric on Iran and the prospect of a greater "US hard power" approach toward Iran under a Romney administration.
Still, not everyone is convinced that a Romney victory is necessarily a negative development for Iran and some Tehran pundits have pointed out that a president Romney would for sure antagonize both Moscow and Beijing and thus prompt a stronger pro-Iran tilt on the part of China and Russia.
President Obama, on the other hand, has done little to earn Iran's trust, given the comprehensive "crippling sanctions" imposed on Iran during the past four years, the Obama-sanctioned cyber-warfare and his constant reminder that the "clock is ticking" on the nuclear issue and the window for diplomacy is closing. Besides, history is a factor too, ie, the fact that historically the republican administrations have been more successful in deal-making with Iran than the democrats.
On the other hand, according to some Tehran political analysts, a re-elected Obama would have a freer hand in orchestrating a "comprehensive negotiation" with Iran that would encompass not only the nuclear issue but also all the other mix of issues on the US-Iran boiler plate.
Thus, in a key interview with IRDiplomacy, Nasser Hadian, a Tehran University political science professor and specialist on Iran's foreign relations, has cautioned against the past error of selective and incremental negotiations, arguing instead for a comprehensive bilateral US-Iran dialogue that would seek to resolve the outstanding issues between the two countries.  Also, both Hadian and a number of other analysts have emphasized the importance of Iran's greater use of "soft power diplomacy" to complement its hard power.
Soft power diplomacy
According to professor Hadian, Iran should avoid "hawkish slogans" and rely on "freedom and democracy, especially the release of political prisoners" as a "deterrent value" and express its willingness "to change some of our behavior".
Certainly, with the Iran presidential elections approaching next June, all eyes are set on the question of whether reformist challengers will be allowed to run and how open the presidential race will be.
Iran's rulers are keen on preventing a recurrence of the political chaos that followed the controversial 2009 presidential elections, which was partly attributable to the political errors of losing candidates, who would have been ideally suited to run again next year if they had not jumped the gun and contested their defeat (despite the absence of empirical evidence, as corroborated by various outside opinion polls both before and after the elections). Such self-inflicted wounds by the reformist politicians will take time to heal and next year's elections may be too soon for them.
Facing multiple national security threats in the region, Tehran's number one priority today is in the realm of national security and not domestic politics, much as the two are intertwined and the regime's stability can suffer by a growing "voter alienation". Indeed, the problems of "deliberative democracy" in Iran are rather complicated and there is no magic solution to overcome the multitude of obstacles. 
Still, a more vigorous attempt by Tehran's rulers to accentuate the rule of law and pluralistic elections will undoubtedly go a long way in enhancing the regime's internal legitimacy as well as its external image, particularly in a region hit by the democratization wave of "Arab Spring".
This does not necessarily mean a similar "Persian Spring," however, primarily because of the strategic errors of reformist politicians in the last presidential round, still haunting the political system in Iran.
Rather, this could come in the form of a concerted effort at "politics of inclusion" that would be reflected in a "government of national unity" that would, in turn, enhance Iran's regional and international standing and thus act as further breaks on the Western-Israeli omnibus of coercion and warfare against Iran, complementing its hard-power strategy (for more on this see How Iran will fight back, Asia Times Online, December 16, 2004).
This aside, other elements of a new Iranian "soft power" deterrence strategy vis-a-vis military threats include: a friendlier approach toward Iran's Arab neighbors in Persian Gulf, greater use of Iran's conflict-management potential with respect to various regional conflicts, enhanced nuclear transparency and improved standing with the International Atomic Energy Agency, human rights improvements, reflected in the recent, much-delayed move to ban death by stoning, thus reflecting a "legal evolution" (see Iran: A Case for legal evolution in Iran, Asia Times Online, December 5, 2008).
Altogether, these "smart power" moves by Iran may culminate in a more meaningful US-Iran dialogue in the (near) future, although much depends on Washington's scope of willingness to transcend its "structural conflict" with Iran and achieve a detente with the Islamic Republic.