17 June 2009

Iran Divided

From the ayatollahs to the national soccer team, Iranians are split over the disputed presidential election. A senior cleric has said that no sensible person can accept the reported result of a landslide victory for the incumbent. Members of the soccer team were wearing opposition colors for at least part of their nationally televised game yesterday. Unverified reports claim that at least one pair of legislators came to blows over the issue. Preliminary reports from the selected recounts suggest ballot stuffing, with more votes cast than voters to cast them in several places. This story sums up much of the latest news.

Adding to the confusion for outside observers is some ambiguity regarding "the government" of Iran. If convincing evidence of a stolen election emerges, it will be necessary to ask whether the theft was perpetrated by the Supreme Leader, the president, or both. It may not be impossible that Ahmadinejad's people tried to pull something without Ayatollah Khamenei's connivance. I don't have a full understanding of the relative powers of the two leaders, or who commands whom at lower levels. Worse, we have to ask to what extent entities like the Revolutionary Guard, which is warning internet writers against creating "tension," are acting on their own initiative. At the same time, the Guard has to be distinguished from the paramilitary basij, the entity generally held responsible for Monday's killings, which seems to be personally loyal to Ahmadinejad.

However things sort out, no one should expect the West's dream scenario of some kind of people-power overthrow of the Islamic Republic. Still unlikely but more possible is that Khamenei might decide to throw Ahmandinejad under the bus, especially if it emerges that a presidential faction acted on its own in stealing the election. It would be within the Guardian Council's power to call a new election, I presume, and to exclude Ahmadinejad from the revote if they determine that he'd been up to no good. As far as I know, while Mousavi has criticized the Guardians for doing little or nothing to rectify the situation, he has no desire to do away with the Islamic Republic format or the vilayat-e-faqih principle of supervisory power for the nation's spiritual leader. Nor are there likely to be more than cosmetic changes to Iran's foreign policy, no matter how things turn out.

Given all that, the President of the United States is taking the right course by limiting himself to expressing reservations over the situation, while blowhards like Senator McCain are only setting Mousavi's faction up for the slaughter by insisting that the U.S. endorse them. All Republicans should recall how they feel when anyone on earth questions the correctness of the 2000 or 2004 presidential elections here before blowing their stacks over the Iranian imbroglio. Of course, for suggesting this I might be accused of asserting "moral equivalence" between the Iranian and American political systems, but for the moment I'm not. What I am asserting is a principle of etiquette and a little bit of common sense that might keep the people you support from losing any chance they have of prevailing or even surviving.

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