Parsing the Iran Election

I’ve been digesting the news from Iran, in bits and pieces over the weekend, and a bit more methodically today. And there are a few threads that I think need some teasing out, since they’ve tended to get mixed up in the weave of passion and empathy that’s characterized the real-time blog coverage I’ve seen so far.

To begin with, it’s important not to let enthusiasm for the cause of Iranian reformist voters and outrage over their treatment at the hands of the Iranian regime in the election’s aftermath translate into certainty over what remains a very opaque outcome. Western coverage in the days leading up to the election was extraordinarily colored by the prism of Western desires for the preferred result. That essentially set the stage for the fraud explanation, which, though admittedly compelling in the face of such courage and hope demonstrated by reformist protestors, rests for now mainly on educated conjecture and the claims of the opposion candidate. Ahmadinejad’s constituency, meanwhile, is by all accounts not a networkedcommunity, meaning the very nature of the online coverage selects foropposition voices.

This Washington Post article about pre-election polling essentially predicting the results reminded me of my initial instinct, namely that it’s a fool’s errand to focus on vote counting in what amounts to a vibrant but very limited democratic arena. This is not an apology for the official version of the vote count, but rather a reminder that the outcome of this “election” was almost certain to be decided behind closed doors, in either direction, and that the criteria for that decision would be the needs of the Iranian regime, as understood in Tehran (and Qom), not the desires of Western observers. The protestors on the street are a moving testimonial to the powerful aspirations toward freedom harbored by Iran’s youth and urban elites. But they are also part of a maneuvering of forces designed to clarify the backroom battlelines at play.

Second, though I’m not certain about its projections for the stability of the regime, I agree with this NY Times analysis regarding the nature of the power struggle. This was never so much about Ahmadinejad and Moussavi as it was about the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Ali Rafsanjani. And while a reformist victory might not have had as much of an impact on Iran’s foreign policy posture as Western observers might have hoped for, the reformist defeat just might. Because a lot of the national security appartaus upon which the Iranian regime is banking its hard power on — nuclear program, domestic missile program — involves the kinds of educated domestic elites they just might have irrevocably alienated.

Third, the kinds of fractures in Iranian society that the election makes apparent suggest very strongly that the Obama administration can afford to exercise strategic patience. These faultlines don’t go away on their own, and a big part of what is driving them is a sense that Ahmadinejad and what he represents is responsible for Iran’s isolation in the international arena. By skillfully managing its overtures toward Tehran — i.e., by keeping them reasonable, measured and respectful, but nonetheless firm — the Obama adminsitration can take advantage of that domestic perception to essentially pressure the regime in Tehran from both sides of the border.

Finally, with regard to how things develop from here, something tells me that a key indicator is whether Ahmadinejad leaves the country tomorrow as planned to attend the SCO summit in Russia. If he leaves, it’s unlikely that the announced review of the vote count will be more than a rubber stamp of the already announced results (which, I should add, nothing I’ve seen has convinced me beyond a reasonable doubt are necessarily rotten). If he postpones that trip again (he was supposed to arrive there today), there might still be some negotiating going on in whatever back room this thing is being decided in.

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