WSJ (/)

06/15/2009 |
Iran's Clarifying Election
No longer can anyone pretend theocracy and democracy are compatible.

Having won re-election amid allegations of fraud, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad yesterday tried to show that he also controlled the streets where the Khomeinist regime first seized power in the 1979 revolution.

The show was less than impressive. Despite efforts by the Ansar Hezbollah (Militants of the Party of God) and security services to manufacture a large crowd, the massive Maydan Vali-Asr (Hidden Imam Square) was unfilled. The official news agency put the number at "several hundred thousands" while eyewitnesses reported tens of thousands.

Even then, scuffles broke out on the fringes of the crowd as groups of dissidents tried to force their way in with cries of "Marg bar diktator!" (death to the dictator). That slogan may be on its way to replacing the normal greeting of salaam (peace) in parts of urban Iran.

No one knows exactly how much electoral fraud took place. The entire process was tightly controlled by the Ministry of Interior under Sadeq Mahsouli, a general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and a senior aide to Mr. Ahmadinejad. There was no independent election commission, no secret balloting, no observers to supervise the counting of the votes, and no mechanism for verification. It is impossible to know how many people voted and for whom.

Mr. Ahmadinejad was credited with more votes than anyone in Iran's history. If the results are to be believed, he won in all 30 provinces, and among all social and age categories. His three rivals, all dignitaries of the regime, were humiliated by losing even in their own hometowns. This was an unprecedented result even for the Islamic Republic, where elections have always been carefully scripted charades.

Many in Tehran, including leading clerics, see the exercise as a putsch by the military-security organs that back Mr. Ahmadinejad. Several events make these allegations appear credible. The state-owned Fars News Agency declared Mr. Ahmadinejad to have won with a two-thirds majority even before the first official results had been tabulated by the Interior Ministry. Mr. Ahmadinejad's main rival, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, retaliated by declaring himself the winner. That triggered a number of street demonstrations, followed with statements by prominent political and religious figures endorsing Mr. Mousavi's claim.

Then something unprecedented happened. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last word on all issues of national life, published a long statement hailing Mr. Ahmadinejad's "historic victory" as "a great celebration." This was the first time since 1989, when he became supreme leader, that Mr. Khamenei commented on the results of a presidential election without waiting for the publication of official results. Some analysts in Tehran tell me that the military-security elite, now controlling the machinery of the Iranian state, persuaded Mr. Khamenei to make the unprecedented move.

A detailed study of Mr. Khamenei's text reveals a number of anomalies. It is longer than his usual statements and full of expressions that he has never used before. The praise he showers on Mr. Ahmadinejad is simply too much. The question arises: Did someone use the supreme leader as a rubber stamp for a text written by Mr. Ahmadinejad himself? With Mr. Khamenei's intervention, Mr. Ahmadinejad's three defeated rivals are unlikely to contest the results of the election beyond lodging formal protests to the Council of the Guardians, a 12-mullah body that has the legal duty of endorsing the final results.

Buoyed by his victory, Mr. Ahmadinejad has already served notice that he intends to pursue his radical policies with even greater vigor. At yesterday's rally, he promised to pass a law enabling him to bring "the godfathers of corruption" to justice. His entourage insists that former Presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami, and former parliament Speaker Nateq Nouri, all midranking mullahs, may be among the first to fall in a massive purge of the ruling elite.

It is too early to guess whether these dignitaries would march to the metaphorical gallows without a fight. Even if they fight, they are unlikely to win. Nevertheless, Messrs. Rafsanjani, Khatami and other targeted mullahs could influence others who wish to prevent a complete seizure of power by Mr. Ahmadinejad's military-security clique, which is determined to replace the Shiite clergy as the nation's ruling elite. Nor is it at all certain that Supreme Leader Khamenei would stand by and watch his power eroded by a rising elite of radicals.

Mr. Ahmadinejad also plans to seize the assets of hundreds of mullahs and their business associates for redistribution among the poor. In his speech at his victory rally yesterday he promised to "dismantle the network of corruption," and vowed never to negotiate about Iran's nuclear program with any foreign power: "That file is shut, forever," he said.

Mr. Ahmadinejad's victory has several immediate consequences. First, it should kill the illusion that the Khomeinist regime is capable of internal evolution towards moderation. Mr. Ahmadinejad sees Iran as a vehicle for a messianic global revolution.

Second, the election eliminates the elements within the regime -- men such as Mr. Mousavi and Mahdi Karrubi (another of the three unsuccessful candidates who ran against Mr. Ahmadinejad) -- who have pursued the idea of keeping the theocracy intact while giving it a veneer of democratic practice. According to a statement published yesterday by Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister who was among 132 anti-Ahmadinejad activists arrested over the weekend, the regime's "loyal opposition" would now have to reconsider its loyalty. With Iranian Gorbachev wannabes like Messrs. Khatami and Mousavi discredited, advocates of regime change such as former Interior Minister Abdullah Nouri and former Tehran University Chancellor Muhammad Sheybani look set to attract a good segment of the opposition within the establishment.

Mr. Ahmadinejad's victory has the merit of clarifying the situation within the Islamic Republic. The choice is now between a repressive regime based on a bizarre and obscurantist ideology and the prospect of real change and democratization. There is no halfway house.

The same clarity may apply to Tehran's foreign policy. Believing that he has already defeated the United States, Mr. Ahmadinejad will be in no mood for compromise. Moments after his victory he described the U.S. as a "crippled creature" and invited President Obama to a debate at the United Nations General Assembly, ostensibly to examine "the injustice done by world arrogance to Muslim nations."

Iran's neighbors are unlikely to welcome Mr. Ahmadinejad's re-election. He has reactivated pro-Iranian groups in a number of Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain. He is determined to expand Tehran's influence in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially as the U.S. retreats. He has also made it clear that he intends to help the Lebanese Hezbollah strengthen its position as a state within the state and a vanguard in the struggle against Israel.

Even Latin America is likely to receive Mr. Ahmadinejad's attention. The first foreign leader to phone to congratulate the re-elected Iranian leader was Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez, whose "brotherly message" received headline treatment from the state-controlled media in Tehran. Later this year, Mr. Ahmadinejad plans to attend the summit of the nonaligned movements in Cairo to claim its leadership, according to Iran's official news agency, with a message of "unity against the American Great Satan" and its allies in the region.

Buoyed by his dubious victory, Mr. Ahmadinejad appears itching for a fight on two fronts. He thinks he can have his way at home and abroad. As usual in history, hubris may turn out to be his undoing.

Mr. Taheri's new book, "The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution," is published by Encounter Books.



  • 2009.06.15 |

    , (/)

    The Iranian Rebellion
    Will Obama stand with Tehran's democratic reformers?

    Even sham elections can sometimes produce real results. That was the lesson of the Philippines in 1986 and of Ukraine in 2004. And though Friday's election in Iran is unlikely to yield a similar democratic outcome anytime soon, the poll matters for having again revealed the nature of mullah rule -- to the Iranians who cast ballots expecting they'd be counted, and to a world that finds its illusions about Iranian democracy shattered.

    The election was a sham thrice over. Though elected by popular vote, Iran's president is subservient to an unelected Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The four candidates whose names made it on the presidential ballot this year were pre-screened by an unelected Guardian Council composed mostly of Islamic clerics, which also disqualified more than 400 others.

    What's remarkable is that these leaders still felt the need to rig the results. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won by a two-to-one reported margin over principal challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi despite having driven the Iranian economy into a ditch. As the Associated Press reported, election authorities were miraculously able to count millions of paper ballots almost immediately after the polls closed to hand Mr. Ahmadinejad his supposed victory. In previous elections, the vote count had come more slowly and with regional delays. "What is most shocking is not the fraud itself, but that it was brazen and entirely without pretext," writes Laura Secor in the New Yorker.

    In the days before the election, Western reporters had heralded a potential upset as they followed Mr. Mousavi's campaign. But Supreme Leader Khamenei had already signaled the outcome by tipping his hat in Mr. Ahmadinejad's favor, and quickly endorsed it after the fact. Mr. Mousavi, who was the Ayatollah Khomeini's prime minister during the Iran-Iraq War, is nobody's idea of an Iranian Corazon Aquino. Yet regime hardliners apparently couldn't countenance even the chance of a Mikhail Gorbachev-type who comes to power attempting to reform the system. And as Mr. Mousavi's campaign gained support as the only way to register public dissatisfaction, many foreign observers bought the democratic illusion.

    Now Mr. Mousavi's supporters are in Tehran's streets, scuffling with riot police and chanting "death to the dictator," meaning Mr. Ahmadinejad but probably Mr. Khamenei as well. This has the potential to be an historic moment, though the regime is already showing by its display of force against protestors that it will not give up power easily. One precedent for many Iranian protestors is the regime's bloody crackdown on university student protests in 1999, in which scores of students disappeared.

    Having shown such courage, the demonstrators deserve Western support, not least from the media that have recently trumpeted the Mousavi candidacy as evidence of Iran's openness and potential for reform, conciliation and so on. Whatever happens in the days ahead, the world has now seen the tyranny raw. The least we owe the protestors is not to look away.

    That moral obligation goes especially for the Obama Administration. President Obama came to office promising the world's dictators an open hand in exchange for an unclenched fist. But as with Kim Jong Il's nuclear advances and the sham trial of two Americans in North Korea, Mr. Khamenei has repudiated the President's diplomacy of friendly overture. It turns out that the "axis of evil" really is evil -- and not, as liberal sages would have it, merely misunderstood.

    The vote should prompt Mr. Obama to rethink his pursuit of a grand nuclear bargain with Iran, though early indications suggest he plans to try anyway. On Saturday, the New York Times quoted one unnamed senior Administration official to the effect that the election uproar would cause Mr. Ahmadinejad to be more receptive to Mr. Obama's overtures as a sop to disgruntled public opinion. If the Administration really believes this, then Mr. Obama is the second coming of Jimmy Carter and the mullahs will play him for time to get their bomb.

    However, Mr. Obama has also stressed the importance of democracy, rule of law and transparency, most recently in the June 4 Cairo speech in which he addressed himself directly to the world's Muslims, Iranian-Muslims included. Now the stand-off in Tehran will test -- more quickly than Mr. Obama probably imagined -- whether he was serious when he said "we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments -- provided they govern with respect for all their people."

    Mr. Obama has the opportunity to lend the protestors the considerable weight of U.S. moral support, just as he has the opportunity to show the regime there are consequences for stealing elections. One such consequence would be for the President to remove his opposition to various bills in Congress, sponsored by Independent Democrat Joe Lieberman and others, that sanction companies that sell gasoline to Iran. An estimated 40% of Iran's domestic gasoline consumption comes from foreign sources.

    In Iran today, a sham election has been met with an open revolt. This takes great courage. The world's free nations need the courage to do better than respond with the sham policy of making nice with an illegitimate regime.


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