An Absurd Outcome to Iran’s Presidential Election

June 13, 2009

It’s official—after a bruising election campaign and historic voter turnout, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has secured a second term. Iran’s Interior Ministry pronounced Ahmadinejad the winner with a landslide 63 percent of the vote, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and the country’s real authority, congratulated the president on his epic victory.

The ball is now in the reformists’ court. Mousavi and other reformists have challenged what they describe in restrained terms as “irregularities” in the election results. Whether they dispute more forcefully or encourage their supporters to protest publicly remains highly uncertain. Since the revolution and its violent aftermath, Iranian politicians have proven reluctant to indulge in street politics, as have its citizens. And the current environment is particularly precarious: The security forces are mobilized for a fight, and the supreme leader has issued a thinly veiled warning to the public not to dispute the results. The regime is ready and capable of repressing small-scale protests, a move that is intended to forestall any large-scale popular challenge to the regime.

And that is precisely what Khamenei and some of the other hard-line leadership saw in the vibrant, jubilant scenes from the Mousavi rallies in the campaign’s final days—the young people dancing all night in the streets of the capital were not a sign of hope, as they were for many Iranians and spellbound international observers. Instead, for Khamenei they represented dangerous cracks in the stability of the Islamic system, the seeds of a “color revolution,” as a Revolutionary Guard commander flatly asserted last week. Their goal in the manipulation of the election results was to eradicate the threat as quickly and definitively as possible. Subtlety was neither necessary nor desirable. Most analysts of Iran presumed that the rigging would be restrained by the need to maintain some perception of the system’s legitimacy, of which its representative institutions and popular participation are a crucial component. This assumption proved false. For Khamenei, stability does not require legitimacy, and when forced to choose the regime will sacrifice the latter for the former.

Watching coverage of the demonstrations from Iran over the past week has reminded me of what I saw back in July 1999, during the student protests that briefly rocked the capital. A movement for change takes life and briefly invigorates the nation’s imagination. The unthinkable happens—in 1999, protesters reportedly tore the Islamic republic’s insignia from police officers’ vests; last week, some of the young participants in Mousavi rallies carried mocked-up newspapers with the headline “Ahmadi raft” (“Ahmadi is gone”), an unmistakable play on the legendary headline from the Shah’s abdication in 1979. Then the crackdown comes, and a frenzied, desperate effort to rally the base and return to some more subdued version of normalcy.

For the Obama administration, the developments of the past week in Iran represent perhaps the worst possible outcome. The U.S. administration’s strategy of engagement was never predicated on the personality of the Iranian president, who after all is not even the country’s final authority. But a win for the reformists would have added real energy to the effort, both within Iran and here at home, in the excitement over shifting ideological tides in Tehran and the inclusion of Iranian leaders who were both capable of and prepared to countenance serious negotiations. A plausible Ahmadinejad victory, while unwelcome, would at least have offered Washington the prospect of dealing with a consolidated conservative government that might have felt confident enough to pursue a historic shift in its relationship with an old adversary.

Instead, Washington now faces a newly fractured Iranian polity ruled by a leadership that is willing to jettison its own institutions and legitimacy in its determination to retain absolute control. That does not bode well for Iran’s capacity to undertake serious talks and eventually engage in historic concessions on its nuclear program and support for terrorism. Obama has to be prepared to move forward with diplomacy despite the wholesale setback for Iran’s limited democracy. In the wake of this disastrous election, opportunities for progress on engagement may unexpectedly present themselves. But he should do so in full awareness of the farce that has been perpetrated with this Ahmadinejad “landslide” and of the seething frustration of so many Iranians.