Now, what?

14/06/2009

 

Watching the unfolding events in Iran it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe that Friday’s presidential election was not rigged. This is not to say that President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad lacks a significant base of popular support. But the widespread unrest in the capital, reports of significant clashes between security forces and supporters of Ahmedinejad’s rival, Mir Hussein Mousavi, in a number of provincial cities, the crackdown on opposition politicians that appears to be taking place and, perhaps most importantly, the clampdown on communications technology and media coverage all make the president’s official 2-to-1 margin of victory seem far from credible.

Iranian elections have sometimes been described as factional disputes among the ruling elite. The vetting system built around the Council of Guardians effectively guarantees that a genuine outsider has little or no chance of standing for office in the Islamic Republic. Thus, what we seem to have here is a palace coup.

To go further than that, however, is to venture far into the realm of speculation and rumor. It will probably be a while – perhaps quite a while indeed – before anyone outside of Iran’s political and military inner circle really knows what has happened over the last few days. Did the Supreme Leader conspire with President Ahmedinejad or has he been pushed aside, relegated to the status of a figurehead? If this was a palace coup who was behind it? The Supreme Leader? Ahmedinejad? The military? The Revolutionary Guards? We have no way of knowing; and the truth, whatever it may be, is likely to emerge only with the passage of time. That may seem obvious, but it should also serve as a note of caution. Moreover, the situation is still developing and changing. Whatever the behind the scenes truth of today is, things may look very different tomorrow or next week – let alone next month or next year.

For a clear timeline of what we can be fairly certain we now know about the palace coup see the June 13 post: “Iran’s Political Coup” at Gary Sick’s blog.

Sick, an Iran specialist at Columbia University who served on the National Security Council staff during the Carter administration, also offers the following analysis:

In 2005, when it appeared that no hard line conservative might survive the first round of the presidential election, there were credible reports of ballot manipulation to insure that Mr Ahmadinejad could run (and win) against former president Rafsanjani in the second round. The lesson seemed to be that the authorities might shift the results in a close election but they would not reverse a landslide vote.

The current election appears to repudiate both of those rules. The authorities were faced with a credible challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who had the potential to challenge the existing power structure on certain key issues. He ran a surprisingly effective campaign, and his “green wave” began to be seen as more than a wave. In fact, many began calling it a Green Revolution. For a regime that has been terrified about the possibility of a “velvet revolution,” this may have been too much. …

It is still too early for anything like a comprehensive analysis of implications, but here are some initial thoughts:

The willingness of the regime simply to ignore reality and fabricate election results without the slightest effort to conceal the fraud represents a historic shift in Iran’s Islamic revolution. All previous leaders at least paid lip service to the voice of the Iranian people. This suggests that Iran’s leaders are aware of the fact that they have lost credibility in the eyes of many (most?) of their countrymen, so they are dispensing with even the pretense of popular legitimacy in favor of raw power.



And that brings us to the other question raised by the events in Iran: what does, or should, it mean for the United States and its announced desire to engage with the Iranian government?

On Meet the Press this morning Vice President Joe Biden was straightforward. “Talks with Iran are not a reward for good behavior,” he said. “Our interests are the same before the election as after the election.” He went on to identify those US interests as making sure Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons and getting Tehran to cease support for terrorism. It was a careful response, one designed neither to welcome a tainted victory nor to close off any particular avenue of contact. This approach has much to recommend it. Refusing to engage with a government we have long disliked because it rigged an election many Americans never expected would be free and fair (albeit the rigging seems to have been far more blatant than most anyone anticipated) seems like an exercise in self-punishment.

Which is not to say the election does not change things. It particular it seems certain to lead to a rethinking of how we deal with Iran. It is, for example, reasonable to ask to what extent a leadership willing to steal an election this openly can be counted upon to negotiate in good faith. This does not mean we should not talk (the North Koreans, from what I can see, never negotiate in good faith but we still talk to them) but it would seem to recommend a wary approach when the talking finally begins.

There will no doubt be some who see these developments as proof that military action is the only way to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions; but nothing emerging from this palace coup alters the unanswered questions lingering over every proposal for attacking Iran’s nuclear infrastructure (how effective can such an attack really be? How will we address an attack’s second and third-level consequences throughout the region?). It is worth remembering here that on the nuclear issue Mousavi’s differences with Ahmedinejad are mainly about style, not substance.

The Obama administration appears concerned mainly with not painting itself into any rhetorical corners. In a situation where events are fluid, and it is unclear even who all of the key players are, that seems, at least for now, like a good policy.

 


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