At Large

Iran: Round Two

The victory of the mullahs' man in the presidential runoff spells new trouble.

By 6.30.05

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Western news media consider elections in many countries to be legitimate only if international monitors declare them so. Yet, when it came to Iran's presidential runoff last week -- where no such monitors were allowed -- they took the government's stated results at face value.

In fact, the election of former Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is suspect by any measure. The mullah-controlled government claimed a 60 percent turnout (63 in the first round). There is no independent verification of this, nor will there be; however, careful observers in the country reported many thinly used polling stations and estimate turnout at under 50 percent.

In many instances, those who did vote were made to do so. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard, the Basiji and the Islamic militia, all of which Ahmadinejad has been associated since the 1979 revolution, made sure that anyone remotely connected with the government and the military went to the polls.

With no outside monitors to interfere, the regime was in a position to do whatever it would take to achieve the result it desired: counting some ballots twice, throwing others out, and manipulating computer vote-counting data.

Of the two candidates, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had been making warm noises about having a better relationship with the United States. Although he had condoned his share of torture and killing during and after the 1979 revolution, he positioned himself this time as the "moderate." Pro-democracy Iranians were not fooled, and anti-democracy, pro-theocracy elements wanted someone more reliably "pure" -- Ahmadinejad. A dose of class warfare figured in, too. Ahmadinejad, the son of a blacksmith, appealed to the economically poorest voters on the basis of pursuing "social justice." These voters interpreted this as a promise of jobs and a better life. How he will do this in our country, which has a 30 percent unemployment rate, he did not say.

The objective of the mullahs, who rule through the Guardian Council, was to preserve their power and perquisites at all costs. They now control the presidency and the parliament, so they are as secure as possible. The idea is to wait out President George W. Bush's current term, in the hope that a successor will be more tractable. Meanwhile, negotiations with the Europe Three (Britain, France, and Germany) will go forward.

On Monday, Ahmadinejad spread soothing syrup at a news conference. He said, "Moderation will be my policy. This will be a government of religious democracy." This echoes a favored statement of outgoing President Mohammed Khatami, the reformer who never delivered reform. Ahmadinejad is closely following scripts in support of Velayat Faghih -- the Ayatollah Khamanei, leader of the theocrats -- while paying lip service to democracy. In May he was quoted as saying, "We did not have a revolution in order to have democracy." That statement sounds like the true Ahmadinejad. In the early part of this decade he became worried that the country's commitment to the principles of the revolution were unraveling, so he joined the fundamentalist group Abadgaran, which won 2003's municipal election. It went on to win control of parliament last year. Their control of all the branches of government is now complete and the "Islamic Republic," as the region's one truly theocratic government, will feel free to spread fundamentalist ideology throughout the broader Middle East.

Ahmadinejad spoke of rooting out "corruption." Ironically, the Revolutionary Guards and other security forces which engineered the outcome of this election are the main sources of corruption in Iran. Ahmadinejad, however, does not mean the pocket-lining corruption of these people when he refers to corruption. Rather, he means cracking down on free speech, the stirrings of women's rights, and gatherings of the regime's critics.

Initially, Ahmadinejad will tread cautiously in terms of specific actions. He will test the water for several weeks, even months. In the Europe negotiations he will press for the mullahs' objectives: unfreezing of Iranian assets, accession to the World Trade Organization, and a tacit European agreement to back off support for Iran's democracy and human rights movement.

In return, he is likely to pledge a moratorium on Iran's uranium enrichment program -- but not a once-and-for-all cessation of it. He and his government will capitalize on the fact that being a "nuclear nation" is popular with Iranians (though most mean this in peaceful terms, not weaponry).

What of those who want democracy for their country? Members of the Iranian Student Movement -- Takhim Vahdat and several other like-minded groups -- are in discussion right now about forming a new united front "umbrella" under which they will redouble their efforts to achieve a democratic government freely elected of and by and people.

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