The Tragedy of the Iranian Elections

Stephen DeAngelis

June 16, 2009

It’s hard to recall an event that held so much promise but resulted in so much crushed hope as did the Iranian presidential election; perhaps the events twenty years ago in China’s Tiananmen Square comes close. The run up to the election was really quite extraordinary. The debates were candid; the accusations were as mean-spirited as any found in U.S. elections; and enthusiasm for change was high. Washington Post op-ed columnist Anne Applebaum notes that even in light of subsequent events, the election did expose a soft underbelly of Iranian politics [“Some Good in a Bad Election,” 15 June 2009].

“Iran’s elections might not have been free or fair but they did, as an Iranian friend of mine put it, expose a ‘serious factional divide that could not be dealt with behind the closed doors of the ruling oligarchy.’ They might not have presented society with two radically different candidates (Mir Housein Mousavi, the ‘reformer’ in this election, presided over the mass murder of political prisoners when he was prime minister in the 1980s), but merely allowing the public the chance to vote against the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, inspired the largest turnout anyone can remember. The press might not have been able to report everything that happened, but Iranians did attend electoral events in unprecedented numbers, hissing and cheering. The votes might not have been counted correctly, but the whiff of fraud has sparked the biggest wave of demonstrations Iranians have seen for a decade.”

Last week, Iranian expatriates living in the Washington, D.C., area streamed into the District to vote in a building where the Iranian government maintains an interests section for citizens in the absence of an embassy. [“Inspired Iranians Show Up To Vote,” by Tara Bahrampour, Washington Post, 12 June 2009]. The hope with which they entered the building and cast their votes reflected the apparent mood in the streets of Iranian cities. Change, it appeared, was on the way. Most of those voting in the District favored Mir Hossein Mousavi or Mehdi Karroubi. Many of them were motivated simply by the desire to oust President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. New York Times‘ columnist Roger Cohen, who has written extensively about Iran, went to Iran to witness the election for himself. I suspect he felt that something big was about to happen — and it did. I just don’t think it was what he expected [“Iran’s Day of Anguish,” 14 June 2009]. My gut tells me that Cohen was hoping to write a celebratory column. Instead, his op-piece reads more like a eulogy for democracy.

“Anger hung in the air, a sullen pall enveloping the city, denser than its smog, bitter as smashed hope. I say ‘defeated.’ But everything I have seen suggests Moussavi, now rumored to be  under house arrest, was cheated, the Iranian people defrauded, in what Moussavi called an act of official ‘wizardry.’ Within two hours of the closing of the polls, contrary to prior practice and electoral rules, the Interior Ministry, through the state news agency, announced a landslide victory for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose fantastical take on the world and world history appears to have added another fantastical episode. … He won as the Interior Ministry was sealed, opposition Web sites were shut down, text messages were cut off, cell phones were interrupted, Internet access was impeded, dozens of opposition figures were arrested, universities were closed and a massive show of force was orchestrated to ram home the result to an incredulous public. Overnight, a whole movement and mood were vaporized, to the point that they appeared a hallucination. The crowds called it a ‘coup d’état.’ They shouted ‘Marg Bar Dictator’ — ‘Death to the dictator.’ Eyes smoldered.”

Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sees the powerful hand of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, behind the coup [“Khamenei’s Coup,” Washington Post, 15 June 2009]. He writes:

“Large-scale manipulation of Friday’s presidential election in Iran was to be expected, but few could have predicted that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had a military coup in mind. By declaring incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner, Khamenei conveyed a clear message to the West: Iran is digging in on its nuclear program, its support to Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas, and its defiant regional policies.”

The Supreme Leader is apparently having second thoughts about seeing the hand of God in the election. U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden has indicated that the U.S. will continue to seek a constructive dialog with Iran, but many analysts recommend that such talks move much more deliberately as a result of the election travesty. None of this is good news for Iran’s business community. As I have noted before, I have spoken with Iranian business people who are eager to bury the past and get on with the future. My company, Enterra Solutions, just announced that we have now signed up 1,000 Iraqi companies on our business-to-business trading exchange we call Enterra One World. I know that Iranian businesses would love to join a similar venture, but I have to keep telling them that politics remains a significant barrier to entry. I’m sure that many business leaders were among those whose hopes were crushed last week [“Reverberations as Door Slams on Hope of Change,” by Bill Keller, New York Times, 13 June 2009].

“For those who dreamed of a gentler Iran, Saturday was a day of smoldering anger, crushed hopes and punctured illusions, from the streets of Tehran to the policy centers of Western capitals. Iranians who hoped for a bit more freedom, a better managed economy and a less reviled image in the world wavered between protest and despair on Saturday. On the streets around Fatemi Square, near the headquarters of the leading opposition candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi riot police officers dressed in RoboCop gear roared down the sidewalks on motorcycles to disperse and intimidate the clots of pedestrians who had gathered to share rumors and dismay.”

The election was a real setback for what my colleague Tom Barnett calls the “Big Bang Theory” in the Middle East — a shake-up of the political environment that began with the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. New York Times‘ columnist Thomas L. Friedman subscribes to a version of this theory [“Winds of Change?” 13 June 2009]. Friedman, like most of us, gets the feeling that little has changed in the Middle East over the past half decade. It remains a mess. Yet, he writes, there is something in the wind. He tells readers that “something is going on in the Middle East today that is very new.” He then invites us to “pull up a chair” and listen because what he is about to explain “is going to be interesting.” He focuses on the recent election in Lebanon, which, unlike the election in Iran, seems to have been free and fair, and in which “the pro-Western March 14 movement won a surprise victory over the pro-Iranian Hezbollah coalition.” He also mentions “the provincial elections in Iraq, where the big pro-Iranian party got trounced.” These electoral defeats of pro-Iranian factions undoubtedly played a role in the forced outcome of the Iranian elections. Friedman asserts that “four historical forces … have come together to crack open this ossified region.”

“First is the diffusion of technology. The Internet, blogs, YouTube and text messaging via cellphones, particularly among the young — 70 percent of Iranians are under 30 — is giving Middle Easterners cheap tools to communicate horizontally, to mobilize politically and to criticize their leaders acerbically, outside of state control. It is also enabling them to monitor vote-rigging by posting observers with cellphone cameras.”

Tom Barnett and I have been arguing for some time that connectivity is good and that trying to control it is like pushing against the tide. One of the reasons that I’m not writing a eulogy about Iran is because Iranian people know how to use information age technologies. They may be down, but they are not out. For more on this subject read the article by Brad Stone and Noam Cohen entitled “Social Networks Spread Iranian Defiance Online” [New York Times, 15 June 2009]. They write:

“Iranians are blogging, posting to Facebook and, most visibly, coordinating their protests on Twitter, the messaging service. Their activity has increased, not decreased, since the presidential election on Friday and ensuing attempts by the government to restrict or censor their online communications.”

Friedman continues with his second force affecting the region:

“Second, for real politics to happen you need space. There are a million things to hate about President Bush’s costly and wrenching wars. But the fact is, in ousting Saddam in Iraq in 2003 and mobilizing the U.N. to push Syria out of Lebanon in 2005, he opened space for real democratic politics that had not existed in Iraq or Lebanon for decades.”

The tragedy of the Iranian elections is that what appeared to be an opening to political space was slammed shut.

“Third, the Bush team opened a hole in the wall of Arab autocracy but did a poor job following through. In the vacuum, the parties most organized to seize power were the Islamists — Hezbollah in Lebanon; pro-Al Qaeda forces among Iraqi Sunnis, and the pro-Iranian Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Mahdi Army among Iraqi Shiites; the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan; Hamas in Gaza. Fortunately, each one of these Islamist groups overplayed their hand by imposing religious lifestyles or by dragging their societies into confrontations the people didn’t want. This alienated and frightened more secular, mainstream Arabs and Muslims and has triggered an ‘awakening’ backlash among moderates from Lebanon to Pakistan to Iran.”

If Friedman is correct on this point, then the leaders in Iran have set themselves up for an even greater backlash in the future. I realize that it is too soon to declare the outcome of this past election a fait accompli, but it doesn’t look good in the short-term. I’m sure that reformers were hoping for a quick turn-around of Iranian policies and, as a result, they were going to be welcomed back into the international community with open arms, but that will probably have to wait.

“Finally, along came President Barack Hussein Obama. Arab and Muslim regimes found it very useful to run against George Bush. The Bush team demonized them, and they demonized the Bush team. Autocratic regimes, like Iran’s, drew energy and legitimacy from that confrontation, and it made it very easy for them to discredit anyone associated with America. Mr. Obama’s soft power has defused a lot of that. As result, ‘pro-American’ is not such an insult anymore. I don’t know how all this shakes out; the forces against change in this region are very powerful — see Iran — and ruthless. But for the first time in a long time, the forces for decency, democracy and pluralism have a little wind at their backs. Good for them.”

The Middle East is a region steeped in tradition and inextricably linked to Islamic culture. Change won’t come easy. I believe that Friedman’s point is that while change may take some time, the important thing to watch is that the vector of change remains pointed in the right direction. For much of the Middle East, it is. For Iran, it remains to be seen.