Iran: How Does This End?

So far, I’ve been agnostic about whether the vote count of the Iranian election was rigged or not. But this CSM interview with Farideh Farhi of the University of Hawaii (via Yigal Schliefer) is pretty compelling. As part of her decades-long research on Iran, Farhi has routinely gone over historical data from Iranian elections with a fine-tooth comb. She concludes that the Interior Ministry “pulled [the numbers] out of their hats,” and that the announced results are a “brazen manipulation.”

As an empiricist, I give that kind of analysis more weight than either the educated conjecture of the Leveretts arguing for the legitimacy of the results, or the “clear consensus” Kevin Sullivan rounds up that the vote was rigged.

But observing the kind of impasse on the ground, where both the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Moussavi-led opposition can neither advance nor retreat, I’m increasingly convinced that if the vote count wasn’t initially a pretext, it has quickly become one.

What we are witnessing, from afar and through contrasting methods of information control (the regime by filtering the flow of information, the opposition by not filtering it), is a struggle for power, where both sides’ legitimacy depends upon not being the aggressor in the event of violence. That’s why, notwithstanding the opposition’s dramatic demonstrations and the regime’s brutal but relatively limited repressive measures, both sides have essentially been playing for time. It’s as if two armies were maneuvering in close proximity, knowing that the first one to open fire loses.

It seems obvious that Khamenei and Moussavi realize this, and I’ve read reports (Le Monde here) that suggest some of the Revolutionary Guard commanders realize it also. Judging by his rhetoric, though, I’m not convinced that Ahmadinejad realizes it.

My sense is that the only non-violent way out of this impasse that restores the regime’s legitimacy (i.e., its stable grip on power) while allowing the opposition to save face is to find a scapegoat. Ahmadinejad would make a useful one, with a plausible scenario then being an interim president followed by a new election. Alternatively, some subordinate to Ahmadinejad could take the fall, with the opposition placated by the kind of institutional accomodation I mentioned yesterday.

Either way, the situation illustrates the inherent flaw of an electoral system where the winner is not decided by the vote count. When there is no way to validate the results, the burden of proof for the opposition is reduced to how credible its claims of fraud are.