Monday, June 15, 2009

Iran's questionable election

While it is hardly clear who really won in Iran's election last Friday, one thing is clear: the clerics are still firmly in control of the regime. Whether they remain so depends largely on how they handle the present protests.

Optimists in the West hoped that hardliner Ahmedinejad would be replace by the kinder, gentler Moussavi as President. There are two big problems with that notion. First, Moussavi is no teddy bear. He was the militant Prime Minister who guided Iran through the Iran-Iraq war, in which the use of waves of boy-minesweepers was one of one of Iran's favored tactics.

Second, even if Moussavi were the Iranian version of Gandhi, it isn't clear how much of a difference it would make. The President is not the most powerful person in Iran: that's the job of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The President is probably not even the second most powerful, or the third, or the fourth -- those are all occupied by the unelected clerics in Khamenei's inner circle, and those who run the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Don't get me wrong, if Moussavi were elected, that would be (have been?) better than Ahmedinejad. But I'm not sure that it was ever really that important who was President.

Paradoxically, the real question is how the clerics handle the aftermath of this election. If they do as they have done twice before when faced with calls for reform (in 1999 and 2000), and send in the military, they may have a real problem. They could end up legitimizing their opponents and strengthening an underground resistance. (Of course, this isn't guaranteed: the Chinese roled out the tanks in 1989 and got away with it.)

If instead the clerics give ground, perhaps even by declaring fraud by Ahmedinejad and giving Moussavi the Presidency, they will likely strengthen their own long-run position. The reason for this is simple: Moussavi is highly unlikely to be able to get anything done once in office. Khamenei can veto anything he really doesn't like, and there are more subtle ways of derailing reforms. Giving the reformers hope and then strangling it slowly with Iran's infamous bureaucracy is likely a far, far more effective tactic for the clerics.

Either way, let's hope the clerics screw it up. It is high time for reform in Iran.

1 comment:

Amod Lele said...

Agree with you entirely on the oil post; probably not much of a surprise. On Mousavi... it's an interesting angle. I'm not sure that Mousavi's loss (fair or otherwise) was beneficial for reform, though. If he was acknowledged as the winner (now or at election time), it would send a clear message that the Iranian people *want* reform, even though the reform wouldn't actually happen, and that's a powerful thing. This result lends Ahmadinejad a lot more legitimacy than his popular support may entitle him to.