June 16, 2009

Second thoughts on the Iranian elections

Normally when someone says "second thoughts," it normally means they are reversing their position on something. I am not necessarily changing my prediction as to the outcome of the election violence in Iran, but would like to offer some more thoughts on what is happening.

I don't know - and anyone who tells you he or she does is lying - the actual outcome of the vote in Iran; we may never know. The official tally is that incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received twice as many votes as his main challenger Mir Hossein Musavi. There certainly has been popular refusal to believe that - leading to massive demonstrations not seen since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

That said, if you look at all the polls taken before the election - and granted, polling in Iran is not as reliable as in the West - the reported outcome is surprisingly in line with the poll results. The numbers of people demonstrating for Musavi in the streets of Tehran is not necessarily indicative of the number of votes cast for him throughout the country.

It will be interesting to watch this play out over the next few days. The key to what is happening is the reliability of the security services. There are many services, from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Basij militias, the local security committees, the national intelligence services, the police, and even the regular armed forces (probably the least supportive of the regime). If the security forces remain loyal to the regime and actively (and violently) suppress the demonstrations, what we are witnessing is Prague in 1968 as opposed to Timi┼čoara in 1989.

It will be interesting also to listen to the rhetoric of the Obama administration. I was disappointed to hear the President's comment that he was pleased that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was concerned enough about the demonstrations to ask the Iranian Council of Guardians to conduct an investigation.

The Council of Guardians is going to tell Khamenei what he wants to hear. Why? Because the Iranian constitution states that the 12-member council is to be composed of six Islamic jurists appointed by the Supreme Leader and six other Islamic jurists elected by the Majlis (Assembly) from a list nominated by the chief of the Supreme Court, who is conveniently appointed by, you guessed it - the Supreme Leader. In political science circles, we call this a "self-licking ice cream cone."

Thinking that this is a satisfactory response to alleged election fraud is symptomatic of the naivete at the White House. President Obama vowed to continue his "tough diplomacy" towards Iran. This is tough diplomacy? We're glad you are going to have your rubber-stamp virtually self-appointed council look into the matter?

Where are the President's Iran advisors? I note with relief that Dennis Ross has been named to the National Security Council to take charge of the Iran portfolio. Dennis knows his way around the region and hopefully will prevent these inane remarks in the future.

Right now, the fate of Iran rests with the security services. If they remain loyal to the government, as I suspect they will, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad will feel validated. They will portray this as a mandate to continue their policies, almost all of which are inimical to our interests.

Is Tehran the Prague of 1968 or the Bucharest of 1989? While I hope for 1989, I fear it is 1968.