A Vote of No Confidence

Iran’s election reminds us of the country’s lack of transparency—which makes it harder to believe Tehran’s assertions about its nuclear program.

We may never know the true results of Friday's presidential elections in Iran. It is clear from the media reports, the frenzy in the blogosphere, the calls of "allahu akbar" ringing out in the night skies of Tehran and other Iranian cities, and the violent clashes in their streets during the day, that a great many Iranians believe that the election results were not just rigged, but outrageously rigged. There is evidence to support the notion that the vote was tampered with, but it is not yet conclusive, and it may never be.

For the rest of the world, what should be most important is that uncertainty itself. That is the most important revelation of these elections, although in truth it is no revelation at all.

Prior Iranian elections may have been perfectly fair and free. But, at least since the stunning 1997 presidential race, there has been consistent evidence of tampering, if not rigging, in these as well. Again, we just don't know.

We don't know because the Iranian regime is anything but transparent or accountable to its people. In practice, it does not guarantee freedom of speech, assembly, religion, of the press or other basic human rights. It does not abide by the rule of law and it employs violence, arbitrary imprisonment, torture and even murder against political dissidents. The crackdown currently taking place across Iran simply underscores these points.

Consequently, there are few people either in Iran or beyond its borders who are prepared to take the regime's word at face value. There are certainly aspects of pluralism in Iranian politics, but these are ultimately constrained by authoritarianism and we just do not know the weight of the one versus the other.

Friday's elections should remind us of this reality. In the end, Iran is not a democracy. Even if its elections are fair and free (and again, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that they are not), it has too few of the other critical aspects of democracy to qualify. Perhaps we should remember the lesson of the Bush 43 administration's catastrophic insistence on premature elections in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine: elections alone-even when they are fair and free-do not constitute democracy.

With regard to international relations with Iran, this reality, and the uncertainties it produces, ought to be weighed carefully in at least two related arenas. First, the world should be less trusting of an Iranian regime with the capacity to produce nuclear weapons (even if it does not actually field an arsenal) than it is of other nations in similar positions. Many Iranian officials say in private that they are only seeking a "Japan" capability. By which they seem to mean having all of the knowledge and technical facilities to build a bomb, but not actually deploying nuclear weapons-a status Japan is widely believed to have achieved. At some point, limiting Iran to such a status may be the best that the international community can hope to achieve. But even if we accept such a deal, Friday's elections should remind us that Iran is not Japan.

Japan is a mature, stable democracy. Its government is transparent, accountable and represents the will of its people. It is governed by the rule of law, protects its citizens' civil and human rights and has many checks on governmental power. That gives the world a great deal of reassurance regarding Japan's possession of such a capability, and a reasonable expectation that if Tokyo ever felt the need to convert its theoretical capability into an arsenal, the world would know about it well beforehand. In the case of Iran, we cannot have the same confidence.

Second, even an agreement with Tehran itself must be treated with a certain skepticism because of the untrustworthiness, or simply the opacity, of the regime. One reason that democracies have tended to have much better relationships with other democracies over the past two centuries is that true democracies, and especially mature democracies, have tended to abide by international agreements, and their transparency, accountability, freedom of the press and rule of law have given other states confidence that they would find out if a democracy were cheating. Some of America's greatest scandals have occurred when it was revealed that Washington was not abiding by such agreements. In the case of this Iranian regime, the world cannot have the same confidence.

This is not an argument against trying to resolve our differences with Iran diplomatically. Whether we like the Iranian government or not, our differences remain and remain very important, and they would best be settled by peaceful negotiation. These elections do not change those basic facts.

But they underscore the point that with Iran, Ronald Reagan's famous dictum of "trust, but verify" may be overly optimistic. Whatever the truth about Friday's elections, they should remind us that caution, not confidence, should be our watchword when it comes to Iran.


Kenneth M. Pollack, a contributing editor to The National Interest, is director of research and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.