The Bully Wins

Ahmadinejad’s “victory” in Iran has caused internal disorder—and could poison the Obama administration’s efforts at engagement.

The impact of Iran's presidential election may have as much to do with the dispute over the result as with who was officially declared the winner. Supporters of reform-minded opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi clearly believe their man was robbed. Counting ballots was the responsibility of the Interior Ministry, led by an ally of the incumbent and announced winner, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose partisans thus had an opportunity to rig the voting if they were so inclined. All of us outside Iran should be cautious in deciding whether the vote count was in fact cooked, especially in the absence of reliable pre-election opinion polls. Mousavi's backers nonetheless see a discrepancy between the momentum their candidate appeared to acquire during the campaign and the announced result of Ahmadinejad winning by an almost two-to-one margin.

The implications of Ahmadinejad remaining in office are far more straightforward. He managed to win a second term, continuing the pattern set by every Iranian president since Ali Khamenei in the 1980s. It also will mean the continuation of most of Ahmadinejad's rhetoric and most of his policies. With the themes he has struck-to such irritating effect in the West-having gotten him this far, there is little to incline him to change direction now, even if this time he might have needed some help from his pals at the Interior Ministry.

Not knowing the true vote makes it hard to interpret the meaning of the election. With or without rigging, it is safe to say both that Ahmadinejad's brand of populism and demagoguery is still relevant to the proletarian elements to which he has always appealed, and that his miserable management of the economy sustained significant opposition to him. There also seemed to be realization among many that-as Mousavi voiced in his campaign speeches-some of Ahmadinejad's rhetorical antics have a marked downside for Iran. Most clear was the excitement and political involvement that the election generated, with vigorous campaigning and an amazing 85 percent voter turnout. And this despite all Iranians realizing that the office in contention is not even the top job in Iran and has less influence than the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

The disputed outcome adds an extra element of illegitimacy to the Iranian political system. In addition to such undemocratic features as the arbitrary exclusion of political candidates by the Council of Guardians and the equally arbitrary nullification of by the same council of legislation, there is now the suspicion of outright cheating. The responses to this over the long term by reform-minded Iranians could go in either of two directions. There might be more disillusionment with the political process and dropping out from it, as occurred during the latter part of the presidency of Mohammad Khatami. Or the additional illegitimacy could amplify anything that bestirs the reformist opposition into more active opposition to the established political order. Which of these two possibilities materializes is unpredictable, as is the short-term course of the current protests against the announced election result.

U.S. policy toward Iran should not have hinged on the outcome of the election, and there is no indication that the Obama administration's policy hinges on it. Any posture that hinted at interference in internal Iranian politics-as would be true of a policy that said America would do business with Iran only if a person acceptable to the United States was in the presidency-would be counterproductive. The most important decisions on matters of most importance to the United States, including the preoccupying nuclear issue, will be taken elsewhere in the Iranian power structure, and especially by the supreme leader. The absence of a reformist victory may actually reduce the chance that hard-line conservatives will respond as they did during Khatami's presidency and strive to torpedo any engagement initiative for which they fear the reformists would gain credit.

That said, the continued prominence of the hectoring, ranting, Holocaust-questioning Ahmadinejad poses political hurdles for any U.S. administration thinking about engagement with Tehran. And now, on top of that, is the possibility that he was not even legitimately elected. If Mousavi's backers continue to challenge the result of the election, the conservatives will still be especially sensitive about any policy departures that might give the reformists an opening. The fundamental needs and principles underlying a sound policy toward Iran have not changed, but the political milieu for executing such a policy may have gotten at least marginally worse.

A basis for offsetting optimism is the vibrancy of political life that the election campaign demonstrated. The campaign showed receptivity to the very sort of good sense that is most important to the United States; Mousavi said a taboo about talking with America had been broken. The vibrancy and the receptivity were not a response to U.S. saber rattling, because such rattling is not what Iranians are now hearing from the U.S. government. Regardless of what hardliners might prefer, Iranians of other persuasions have not been reduced to political passivity and submission.


Paul R. Pillar is a visiting professor and director of studies of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.