Saturday’s declaration that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won a landslide victory for a second term moved the country’s perennially unpredictable politics into uncharted territory. The patently implausible outcome sparked disbelief, defiance, and violent reprisals on the streets, jeopardizing the stability and legitimacy of the Islamic regime and complicating U.S. President Barack Obama’s efforts to engage directly with Tehran as a means of blunting its nuclear ambitions.
That the election outcome was rigged is not in serious dispute – Ahmadinejad’s ostensibly overwhelming margin contravenes polls, anecdotal evidence, historical voting patterns, and even the most credulous interpretation of Iranian opinion. Fraudulence in an Iranian election cannot come as a real surprise, since the process has always been subject to official manipulation, starting with candidate vetting and often continuing through explicit vote tampering. But never in the Islamic Republic’s history has an election been stolen as explicitly and unabashedly as Friday’s was, and never has the putative mandate of the elected president been so openly derided by the political elite as well as broad segments of the population.
Iran’s representative institutions date back a century, a legacy sufficiently important for the Islamic Republic to retain a continuing albeit constrained electoral process to provide a crucial pillar of public support. This time, however, Iran’s power brokers sacrificed legitimacy to stamp out what they perceived as threats to the regime’s stability in the raucous, hopeful demonstrations-cum-celebrations that took fire during the campaign’s final week. For the battered reform movement, the vast, ecstatic crowds of young Iranians who rallied all night and formed a human chain along the epic boulevard that stretches across Tehran, represented its revival from the ashes of political marginalization. For the Revolutionary Guard and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the same scenes were the harbinger of a soft revolution.
The preposterousness of Ahmadinejad’s "victory" drove thousands of Iranians into the streets to protest, but with the security forces mobilized and an array of reformist leaders jailed, the next phase of the crisis remains uncertain. The unlikely hero at the center of the uproar is Mir Husayn Musavi, the mild-mannered former prime minister who had avoided politics for two decades and whose campaign only seemed to ignite in its final days. Musavi’s long association with revolutionary Iran’s power structure and political elite makes his current role as the voice of Iran’s disempowered electorate astonishing.
Still, while he has called for the annulment of the election and endorsed peaceful public protests, it is far from certain that Musavi will take up the mantle of frontal opposition to Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. Iranian politicians generally avoid street politics, and by their palpable silence so far, many of Iran’s most powerful patriarchs are likely seeking some negotiated outcome to the current crisis behind the scenes. For his part, Ahmadinejad’s smug post-election press conference and mammoth rally betray little sense of insecurity about the provocative path that the regime has chosen.
Iran’s blatant electoral shenanigans and the outraged popular reactions create an unexpectedly fraught situation for Washington. The Obama administration has signaled that its efforts to jumpstart direct talks with Iran will proceed irrespective of the outcome, as the President always intended. But the election – rather than improving the context with a reform victory or merely perpetuating the status quo with a plausible Ahmadinejad win – has instead poisoned the atmosphere for diplomacy. Washington now faces an Iranian political elite at war with itself and with its people, under renewed criticism from the world and subject to even greater skepticism about its capacity for compromise and respect for international laws and norms.
The United States must seek out opportunities for resolving the increasingly urgent impasse over Iran’s nuclear program and addressing the broader array of concerns about Iranian policy. The elections have not changed the fact that negotiations represent the best of a range of unappealing options available to Washington. However, as a result of the increasingly arbitrary actions by Iran’s leadership, the American diplomatic approach has become more complicated and a successful resolution of the three-decade long estrangement becomes unfortunately less likely.