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New Jersey Professor Wants To Be The "Deng Xiaoping Of Iran"

Hooshang Amirahmadi's American campaign for the presidency of the Islamic Republic. "I believe that the Islamic leaders are rational."

Posted on January 29, 2013, at 9:11 a.m. ET

There may not have been many votes for the Iranian presidency to be found in New York University's Student Center Tuesday night, but Hooshang Amirahmadi was gamely stumping there anyway.

Amirahmadi, 65, is what you'd call a longshot candidate. An American citizen, he left Iran in 1975. Iran's he Guardian Council rejected his request for official candidacy when he tried to run in 2005 and isn't certain to grant it for this June's election. A few candidates favorable to the country's mullahs are already emerging, while the regime cracks down on dissent, rounding up journalists and staging (relatively rare) public executions. Meanwhile, half a world away, Amirahmadi professes a wish to be the "Deng Xiaoping of Iran," a reformer with a goal of reforming the existing system without overthrowing it.

Amirahmadi, who directs the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University and founded the American Iranian Council, filled a room in NYU's Kimmel Center on Monday with students from some of the university's international affairs classes and older Greenwich Village types. Cookies, vegetables and dip, and tea sat on a table in the back. Amirahmadi was introduced by his young aide, Kayvon Afshari, a graduate of NYU's masters program in politics, a clean-cut figure in a suit who was strict with the rules for the Q&A segment after Amirahmadi's speech.

A small man with glasses wearing a dark suit, Amirahmadi cuts a moderate, Western-ized figure despite a lingering strong accent. He laid out his plan in a 45-minute long address to the audience. His platform rests on three qualities, he says: that he is a bridge-builder, a peacemaker, and a good economic manager. He promised an end to factionalism within the Iranian power elite, an improvement in relations with the U.S., an easing of economic sanctions, and the advantages of a friendly relationship with the person who really runs the country: Ayatollah Khamenei, whom he says he visited at the palace when the Ayatollah himself was president. "If you are a talented executive in the executive branch in Iran, you can really do a lot," Amirahmadi said.

When he had finished speaking, the floor was open for questions. More than one audience member asked him whether he truly believed his candidacy could be legitimate, and whether he planned to do any campaigning in Iran.

"Obviously we don't want to just campaign from here," Amirahmadi said. "Eventually we're going to move over to Iran."

"I am well within the Islamic Republic's constitution," Amirahmadi said. "There's absolutely no reason for them to reject me."

Moreover, "I believe that the Islamic leaders are rational," he said, "and I'm counting on that rationality."

And he made a point of distancing himself from exiled opposition group MEK: "The MEK has no support in Iran, none. It is used by the U.S. to put pressure on the Islamic Republic."

As for his rejection in 2005, he said that Iran had "completely changed" since then.

When Amirahmadi finished speaking, Afshari stressed that "what we're doing is building a long-term political organization."

"An alternative, legal, political organization," Afshari called it. He said that the campaign would be visiting Iran in March and in May.

Amirahmadi mingled with the crowd afterwards and took questions from the handful of reporters who'd shown up.

He could be overheard telling one reporter that Chuck Hagel was a close friend, as well as John Kerry.

In an interview with BuzzFeed, Amirahmadi touched on some of the issues of the day, such as the nuclear program, an area that forms an important component of the careers of his presumed opponents. Also Israel, which, Amirahmadi said, "would have absolutely no reason to attack Iran if I was president."

As for the issue of the monkey that Iran says it managed to launch into space, Amirahmadi smiled and said that as president, he would encourage Iran to move past those kinds of midcentury technologies and tackle the future.

"It is important that they do this kind of stuff, but this is old technology," he said. "I've been asked, 'would you build a bomb?' and I said no, what I would do is develop cyberspace. The future war will not be a nuclear war, it will be cyber war."