The mishandling of the recent presidential election in Iran may go down as the pivotal event in the history of the Islamic Republic. Saddam Hussein and the mighty United States could not bring the regime down. Yet, human hubris, greed and misjudgments of monumental proportions by the country's leadership may do what threats, sanctions and armies could not.
How and why does Tehran find its back to the wall? How might events unfold over the next few days and weeks? And what, if anything, could or should the United States do?
The factions in Iran that matter (in order of importance)-the supreme leader and his entourage, the intelligence services (especially a special branch tied to the supreme leader), the various centers of clerical power (worldly, not religious) such as the Guardian Council and the judiciary, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the regular military-are generally corrupt and lust after wealth. Whereas past presidents accommodated the greed and corruption of some groups, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was able to accommodate them all, in part because of record-high oil prices during his term in office. In particular, Ahmadinejad brought the IRGC and the military into the corruption feeding frenzy. Simultaneously, he accommodated the wishes of the intelligence services and the IRGC because he, more than any other past president, appreciated their power in Iran. Although not a cleric, Ahmadinejad followed every wish of the supreme leader as if it was his own initiative. At the same time he handed out wads of cash and subsidies to the poor, garnering their support for the future. He paid little heed to economic management and Iran's overall economic performance. The centers of power in Tehran had found their "ideal man" in the form of President Ahmadinejad.
The regime did not expect an open challenge to Ahmadinejad's run for reelection. The leaders were complacent. In the past the Iranian people had been passive. Students were often the only group to demonstrate. It was thought that the other candidates in this election-one-time Prime Minister Mir Hussein Moussavi, former-parliamentary speaker and cleric Mehdi Karroubi and ex-head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Mohsen Rezai-were a part of the system and they too would back down and accept the result, especially if the supreme leader quickly endorsed the outcome. Ayatollah Khamenei had never been challenged and he expected nothing different this time.
Then, in the last ten days before the election, things changed dramatically. There was a sudden surge, even fervor, for Moussavi. The opposition coalesced behind him as they had never done before, even for former-President Mohammad Khatami. This was a total surprise to the regime. The mullahs panicked. They could not risk a runoff. The leaders decided to rig the election as never before. We may never know how much rigging there actually was, but Tehran's theocrats decided to make the winning margin big enough to rule out a second round.
But the regime failed to show the finesse it had in the rigged election of 2005. The voting pattern in particular towns for the various candidates defied logic; the speed of the vote count and its early reporting was unprecedented; and the supreme leader's early endorsement of the result highly suspicious. In a society where even facts are suspect, nothing fit the normal pattern.
And this time, the government had misread the mood of the people. The outcry was widespread, coming from the reformist leaders (Khatami and former-President Hashemi Rafsanjani), all three loosing candidates, important religious clerics such as Ayatollah Sanai (who allegedly issued a fatwa against collaboration with the regime) and prominent businessmen alike.
Today, the supreme leader's authority is under direct challenge. The signs are everywhere. These are no ordinary demonstrations; they will not peter out. The legitimacy of the regime is under siege.
Again, how could Tehran miscalculate so? If Moussavi had won, life would have been so much easier. The threat of an Israeli attack would be almost eliminated. Negotiations with the United States would be facilitated. After all, the Iranian establishment could have easily controlled Moussavi. The only answer is that the supreme leader was afraid of who might come into new prominence were Moussavi to be elected. Khamenei and his allies suspected a "velvet coup" if Moussavi won, with former-President Rafsanjani as the brains behind the move. Pointedly, Mr. Rafsanjani, who was widely expected to gain prominence under a Moussavi government, has been lobbying for a new election in the last three days.
What now? To calm matters and douse the flames, the supreme leader took the unprecedented step of asking the Council of Guardians (half of whom are his direct appointees and the other half indirectly owe their positions to him) to review the results. But the review by the Council cannot be independent. Ayatollah Jannati, the head of the body, is a supporter of President Ahmadinejad and a devotee of the supreme leader. The Council will thus not decide, but will be told what to do. There are two options.
Option 1: If the Council annuls the vote and orders a new election, demonstrations will subside, but the regime will be dealt a mortal blow. They will lose their "Islamic" credentials, if they have not already done so. How can a regime profess Islam and be credible if it trashes everything Islamic-fair elections, transparency, honesty, the rule of law, upholding justice, economic equity and much more?
Option 2: If the Council waffles about some inaccuracies, but does not annul the election results, then demonstrations will not subside.
The regime can take option 1 and pray that it can hang on. If it goes down this road, it will try to reach out to the United States (it may already be doing so through back channels) and others to garner some international legitimacy. But in the end, if this impasse is not resolved soon, the government cannot last in its present form; the Iranian system of rule, the Velayat-e-Faqih (the supreme rule of the chosen cleric), will not survive for more than two to three years. Iranians have seen through the façade of the leaders' religiosity. Of course, if a new supreme leader were to be appointed, the system could be rescued.
If the regime takes option 2 and cracks down as an absolute dictatorship, it could last longer, but it will still go under in a relatively short span of time. Factions will take up arms and attack the regime from the inside. Iranians did not oust the shah and die in the war with Iraq to accept an even more brutal dictatorship.
The Islamic Republic is truly caught between a rock and a hard place.
The United States, for the first time in thirty years, could have a significant effect on developments in Tehran. President Obama should think through his response carefully and should not do what he was planning before the election. This is a new Iran. The regime is so vulnerable that it will desperately need American recognition to restore some measure of international legitimacy. While the regime may be more willing than ever before to compromise with the United States, the United States must resist the temptation to go along. President Obama, beware.
U.S.-Iran policy must not be driven by the nuclear issue or by the mullahs' potential promise of support in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region. Obama's reaction to the Iranian election should be shaped by the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people and not by short-term political expediency.
Backing the reign of the mullahs at this point or announcing the initiation of talks with the regime in Tehran would be unhelpful to Iran's quest for democratic rule. Now that Iranians are in the streets, risking their lives to speak out against what they view as an illegitimate regime, they will not look kindly on a friendly overture from the United States to the mullahs. The Obama administration can well wait for a few days, if not a few weeks. After all, we have already gone for nearly thirty years without dialogue.
Hossein Askari is the Iran Professor of International Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University.