I remain a little taken aback that some people -- like Newsweek's Christopher Dickey in the below quote -- seem ready to believe that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the Iranian presidential election fair and square:
It appears that the working classes and the rural poor—the people who
do not much look or act or talk like us—voted overwhelmingly for the
scruffy, scrappy president who looks and acts and talks more or less
like them. And while Mousavi and his supporters are protesting and even
scuffling with police, they are just as likely to be overwhelmed in the
streets as they were at the polls.
Juan Cole has already ably dispensed with such arguments, but here's something else to consider. If Ahmadinejad were really the victor, why would he be detaining the opposition? Why kick out foreign journalists? And check out this chilling quote, referring to Mousavi:
He ran a red light, and he got a traffic ticket,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said
of his rival, during a news conference at the presidential palace.
According to the New York Times, Mousavi remains at home "with police closely monitoring his movements."
These are not the actions of a magnanimous, confident victor:
Three Middle East experts weigh in on the situation in Iran, and what the United States should do about it. Versions of the first two comments were originally posted to a private listserv and are reprinted here with permission:
F. Gregory Gause III:
that it is way early, and we have to see how things develop, but let's assume
that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the clerical elite get away with the power grab.
What does Washington do? Put the outreach to Iran on hold?
I'll start with a provocation: I think that the diplomatic outreach should
continue as it started. It would be great if there were real democracy in Iran
and the United States did not have to deal with the execrable incumbent
president. But American interests here are not about Iranian domestic politics.
They are about Iran's role in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf, the Arab-Israeli arena,
and the nuclear program.
I acknowledge that it would be much easier to come to some understanding on
these issues with a different, more representative Iranian government. But it
looks like we might not get that. So the United States might as well try to
engage the incumbents in order to see if it can get some kind of deal on at
least some of these issues that will help avoid a confrontation down the road.
America deals with all sorts of governments whose domestic arrangements are, to
put it mildly, less than compatible with American ideals. (The Saudis are Exhibit
A.) I think that's how to deal with Iran.
F. Gregory Gause III is professor of political science at the University of Vermont and author of Oil Monarchies: Domestic and
Security Challenges in the Arab Gulf States.
As a former advocate of robust engagement with Iran, I will throw my two cents
into the discussion suggested by Greg Gause, if somewhat hesitantly at this
early stage of what is unfolding in Tehran.
I would have preferred to wait to see the full extent of the evidence (or lack
thereof) concerning what appears to be a relatively more determined and
forceful power grab in Tehran before doing so, but what real harm is there in
airing some of my concerns -- concerns that incline me toward an admittedly
rather tentative conclusion at variance with that of my friend Greg Gause?
In order to have an effective dialogue, the other party must have a certain
measure of credibility. One must be able to trust that such a dialogue is being
conducted in reasonably good faith, not just a far less promising "going
through the motions" affair. If we have witnessed an unprecedented,
bare-knuckled power grab overseen by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,
what does that tell us about his inclinations about meaningful compromise on
the nuclear issue?
In Iran, there
always has been, of course, some separation between domestic and foreign
affairs, as with many largely authoritarian governments. Yet, it could be that
Khamenei is considerably more hard-line on the nuclear issue
than was previously thought. I realize that his motivations for engaging in
what many say now has been unusually interventionist behavior to keep
Ahmadinejad in office almost certainly would have been domestic, but can we
exclude the possibility that the nuclear account played into this as well -- or
other issues that could well come up in a more generalized dialogue with Iran?
As a result, I question the prudence of simply plowing ahead on engagement as
if nothing has changed the potential state of play between Tehran and
Washington (if our worst fears pan out about what has happened in Iran). One
reason, albeit certainly not the only one, that I have been a strong advocate
of dialogue is to avert an Israeli attack on Iran. Because of that factor
alone, many readers might be unmoved by what I've tapped out above.
However, whereas I had no qualms about engagement before -- even had Ahmadinejad
been largely legitimately elected -- I now do have a measure of hesitation
(pending, of course, a full accounting of what has transpired concerning the
election). Unless the shock in so many quarters over the election's outcome
turns out to be largely the result of wishful thinking on the part of those who
yearned to be rid of an Ahmadinejad presidency (me included), I do not believe
the equation remains necessarily unchanged regarding engagement.
Should the worst interpretation of the election and its aftermath turn out to
be true, even I might conclude in time that those adverse developments are still
outweighed by the need for engagement. At the moment, though, I am experiencing
some hesitation about simply waving aside what we may have witnessed in Iran
and moving forward toward serious negotiations with such a government.
Wayne White is an adjunct scholar at the
Middle East Institute and was head of the State Department's Iraq intelligence
team from 2003 to 2005.
Few doubt that the results presented
by the interior minister are rigged. In fact, there are increasing questions as
to whether the votes were ever even counted. If this were really a landslide in
favor of Ahmadinejad, where are those 63 percent of the people right now? Shouldn't
they be celebrating their victory on the streets?
Clearly, the anti-Ahmadinejad camp has
been taken by surprise and is scrambling for a plan. Increasingly, given their
failure to get Khamenei to intervene, their only option seems to be to directly
challenge -- or threaten to challenge -- the supreme leader.
Here's where the powerful chairman
of the Assembly of Experts, Mousavi supporter Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, comes
in. Only this assembly has the formal authority to call for Khamenei's dismissal,
and it is now widely assumed that Rafsanjani is quietly assessing whether he
has the votes to do so or not.
It may be that the first steps
toward challenging Khamenei have already been taken. After all, Mousavi went
over the supreme leader's head with an open letter to the clergy in Qom. Rafsanjani
clearly failed to win Khamenei's support in a reported meeting between the two
men Friday, but the influential Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, who heads the
vote-monitoring committee for Mousavi and fellow candidate Mehdi Karroubi, has
officially requested that the Guardian Council cancel the election and schedule
a new vote with proper monitoring.
The implications for Washington's agenda,
meanwhile, could be extensive. Although the United States is pursuing diplomacy
with Iran in its own self-interest, electoral fraud (or the perception of fraud)
complicates this strategy. And if political paralysis reigns in Iran, valuable
time to address the nuclear issue through diplomacy will be lost. The White
House's posture thus far is a constructive one -- while it cannot remain
indifferent to irregularities in the elections, it must be careful never to get
ahead of the Iranian people and the anti-Ahmadinejad candidates.
Finally, the Iranian-American
community is deeply concerned about the situation. Sporadic protests have been
taken place worldwide, including in Washington, D.C. Last week's campaigning --
with unprecedented debates, genuine grassroots mobilization, and major voter participation
in the elections -- raised hopes that Iran was moving in a democratic
direction, but the developments of the past 24 hours have dramatically changed
the mood in the community.
This is not the election result anyone but Iranian and
Israeli hardliners hoped for. But all is
not lost. While the Iranian leadership
remains the same-at least for now-trends in the country and the region may still
help President Obama's strategy to contain and engage Iran.
Post election, the Obama administration faces the same
diplomatic challenges with Iran as before -- chief among them containing Iran's
nuclear program. While Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist hope, might have been
able to reverse the fierce nationalistic politics Mahmoud Ahmadinejad injected
into the Iranian nuclear issue, the ultimate arbitrator of Iran's policy is
neither man, but the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
As Carnegie Endowment scholar Karim
Sadjadpour notes, "We should be clear about what we're dealing with. Just as we deal with Assad's Syria and
Mubarak's Egypt, we now have to deal with Khamanei's Iran."
Despite the unfortunate result, the process of engagement
must continue and the illusion of quick military or coercive options
rejected. We do not negotiate with
countries as a reward, but as a normal part of statecraft. The new challenge is
to balance support for reformist and democratic movements in Iran with
strategic diplomacy with Iran's leaders.
Senior administration officials struck the right chords with
their comments over the weekend. "The administration will deal with the situation
we have, not what we wish it to be," said one
senior official. The task
remains the same -- we must engage Iran in order to contain its nuclear program
and channel its regional ambitions.
Obama's pragmatic approach should follow three simultaneous tracks:
bilateral and multilateral talks over regional issues of common concern (Iraq
and Afghanistan, chief among them); formal P5+1 talks with the other Security
Council members and Iran on the nuclear program; and bilateral discussions on
the broader US-Iranian relationship.
Contrary to what critics may argue, this does not imply caving in or
giving away the store. This is
hard-headed strategic diplomacy that has worked in the past to convince other
countries to end nuclear. There are
three developments that offer some promise that such an approach could succeed
First, the election has exposed deep fissures in Iranian society and
deep distrust of the ruling regime. Despite their triumphalist rhetoric, Iran's
leaders must be troubled by the growing opposition to their dictatorial
rule. The BBC reports that
the situation inside Iran "is becoming unpredictable and potentially
explosive." There is no telling where
this could lead. Even if the protests
subside, pragmatists among the elite may now push for greater accommodation
with the West -- including compromise on the nuclear program -- in order to
open trade and relieve the national economic distress that fueled Mousavi's
Second, the continued pursuit of nuclear weapon capability carries
risks for Iran. An Israeli military
strike is one, but more ultimately menacing may be the reaction of Iran's
Muslim neighbors. In the past three
years, over a dozen Middle Eastern states have suddenly expressed interest in
their own civilian nuclear programs, including Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and
the UAE. This is not about reducing
their carbon footprint, it is a hedge against Iran. Iran's leaders have an
interest in ending this nascent nuclear arms race before it is faced with
multiple, nuclear-armed adversaries.
Third, Obama's Cairo
speech demonstrated the renewed appeal of American ideals and began to
rebuild ties to the Muslim world damaged by the brutal and unnecessary invasion
of Iraq. Obama can back up his words
with deeds through bold cuts in U.S. and Russian arsenals to show that the is
serious about the global elimination of nuclear weapons, with serious efforts
to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with support for the democratic
aspirations of all Muslim people, and with the continued withdrawal from Iraq
and new campaigns against violent extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan that do
not rely primarily on military attacks. If he can take these steps, Obama could
undercut the appeal of Ahmadinejad's brand of anti-Americanism in the greater
The patience and balance that Obama has show thus far in his Iran
approach must continue. There was never
any indication that the president thought this was going to be quick or
easy. The Iranian nuclear program built
up a fierce momentum in recent years thanks to Bush's bungled efforts
to overthrow the regime. It will take some years to slow and reverse this
UPDATE:FP's David Rothkopf weighs in. "Since
governments rather than general populations control nuclear programs, shouldn't
the recent events give us reason to reconsider our recent drift toward
acceptance of Iran's nuclear aspirations?," he asks.