As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Electoral Theft In Iran

I left kind of a flip Twitter message about how, unlike in Iran, here in the US we never have stolen elections and irregularities at polling places, but this disputed election and the subsequent protests in the Islamic Republic is actually a bit more serious than that. You could see this coming a mile away - wildly divergent polls, an expected high turnout, a country known for at least limiting their elections, though they are probably more free than other countries in the region. It set the table for the unrest we see:

Supporters of the main election challenger to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad clashed with police and set up barricades of burning tires Saturday as authorities claimed the hard-line president was re-elected in a landslide. The rival candidate said the vote was tainted by widespread fraud and his followers responded with the most serious unrest in the capital in a decade.

By nightfall, cell phone service appeared to have been cut in the capital Tehran. And Ahmadinejad, in a nationally televised victory speech, accused the foreign media of coverage that harms the Iranian people. There was more rioting at night and fires continued to burn on the streets of Tehran.

Several hundred demonstrators — many wearing the trademark green colors of pro-reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi's campaign — chanted "the government lied to the people" and gathered near the Interior Ministry as the final count from Friday's presidential election was announced.

The Supreme Leader closed ranks around Ahmadinejad's victory as a "divine assessment." Meanwhile Mousavi denounced a regime based on "lies and dictatorship." I think it's clear we're going to see more protests and, in all likelihood, violent clashes with the Revolutionary Guard, which has vowed to "crush" any popular movement.

Juan Cole lays out the evidence, in compelling fashion, that the hardliners and conservatives stole the election. He doesn't think the protests will eventually have much of an impact:

The public demonstrations against the result don't appear to be that big. In the past decade, reformers have always backed down in Iran when challenged by hardliners, in part because no one wants to relive the horrible Great Terror of the 1980s after the revolution, when faction-fighting produced blood in the streets. Mousavi is still from that generation.

My own guess is that you have to get a leadership born after the revolution, who does not remember it and its sanguinary aftermath, before you get people willing to push back hard against the rightwingers.

So, there are protests against an allegedly stolen election. The Basij paramilitary thugs and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards will break some heads. Unless there has been a sea change in Iran, the theocrats may well get away with this soft coup for the moment. But the regime's legitimacy will take a critical hit, and its ultimate demise may have been hastened, over the next decade or two.

My only hesitation would be that more attention is being paid to Iran now than in the past, and sustained effort would receive support outside the country. But that's quite a burden on the reformers, even if, as alleged, they represent a majority in Iran. And anyway, the White House is cautiously hedging away from lending support to the reformers, mindful that any words from the West could easily be used by hardliners as proof that the infidels are trying to overthrow the government. This spokesman for the Iranian resistance explains:

Robert Gibbs' White House statement may not fully capture the depth of the crime committed against the Iranian people. "But I think it's wise for the U.S. government to keep its distance," Ghaemi says. The White House can and should "show concern for human life and protesters' safety and promote tolerance and dialogue." But to get any further involved, even rhetorically, would "instigate the cry that the reformers are somehow driven and directed by the U.S., whether under Bush or under Obama, and there's no reason to give that unfounded allegation" any chance to spread.

Ghaemi continues to say that the international community should present a united front that gives "no legitimacy" to the election. In particular, he wants U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to express "serious grievances" about how the election was conducted. "Sanctions and military threats, all these things are counterproductive," Ghaemi says. The initiative has to be expressed and promoted by the Iranians themselves, particularly from Mir Hossein Moussavi and other exponents of popular Iranian outrage. "It very much depends on what leading reformers, including Moussavi, ask them to do, and how much responsibility do they take for exposing them to danger. If they put their tails between their legs and walk away, it will be very sad."

Ultimately, the President of Iran holds less power than assumed. But the Supreme Leader Khamenei's assent of this apparent fraud is a bad sign for future engagement with the Obama Administration. The hardliners are consolidating power.

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