What a difference a few days can make. Last week, ahead of Iran’s presidential elections, I wrote here that the outcome would matter little in the grand scheme of Iranian politics. I may have spoken too soon. Since Friday, that country has descended into political turmoil of a type not seen since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The cause is a rigged election that has catalyzed widespread outrage among ordinary Iranians and threatened the legitimacy of the ruling regime in Tehran.
Ordinarily, clerical interference would be par for the course — a function of the pervasive influence of Iran’s powerful religious institutions. This time, however, things appear to be different. The wildly popular campaign of populist challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi, with its promises of economic revitalization and greater enfranchisement for Iranian women, had captured the imagination of ordinary Iranians. So when, mere hours after the polls closed, Iran’s Interior Ministry certified incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the overwhelming victor, defying both unofficial polling and conventional wisdom, Iranians took to the streets in protest.
They have remained there ever since, despite mounting pressure from the Iranian government. Over the past three days, the Iranian regime has authorized a massive mobilization of security forces. It has also instituted a virtual electronic embargo, revoking the work permits of foreign journalists, blocking broadcasts by the BBC’s popular Persian service, limiting Internet access and stopping SMS text messaging. There are even reports that it has enlisted foreigners to help control restive crowds in a sure sign that Iran’s ayatollahs are nervous about the mounting social discontent on the Iranian “street.”
They should be. By any yardstick, Iran is a country in the grip of massive socio-economic malaise. Inflation now stands at nearly 30 percent. Unemployment is rampant, officially pegged at over 10 percent but unofficially estimated to be as much as two-and-a-half times that figure. Nearly a quarter of the Iranian population now lives under the poverty line, and both prostitution and drug addiction are rampant. Add to these Ahmadinejad’s gross mismanagement of the national economy over the past four years, and it is easy to see why Iran’s leaders fear that outrage over a stolen election could spiral into something more.
How events in Iran will play out in coming days is anybody’s guess. Iran’s ayatollahs may well blink in the face of unprecedented public opposition. Indeed, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has publicly expressed his willingness to reexamine the election results, while parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani has created a commission to investigate possible excesses by regime security organs. Just as easily, however, Iran’s theocracy could return to its thuggish roots, using its feared clerical army, the Pasdaran, and its ruthless domestic militia (known as the basij) to crush the protests violently and decisively. Nor is a more fundamental transformation out of the question, if Iran’s various opposition forces manage to coalesce into a coherent, sustained challenge to the country’s clerical elite.
So far, the silence from the Obama administration has been deafening. The White House has adopted a “wait and see” approach to the current turmoil, refraining from weighing in decisively on the political turmoil engulfing Tehran. In doing so, Administration “realists” hope to avoid having to make hard choices about who, exactly, the United States supports.
But Washington does have a dog in this fight. For years, the United States has been preoccupied by the growing threat of an Iranian “bomb,” with little attention paid to the domestic opposition within Iran. Those two things, however, are intimately related. The threat posed by Iran’s atomic program has little to do with nuclear technology, and everything to do with the nature of the regime that will ultimately wield it. The United States therefore has a vested interest in the emergence of a more pluralistic, moderate Iran — one that can be a mature nuclear custodian, and which won’t see itself as irreconcilably in conflict with the West.
To that end, President Obama can and should use his tremendous political capital to put Iran’s regime on notice that its place in the international community hinges on how it treats its political opposition during the current crisis. And, in the longer term, his administration would do well to recognize that its safest bet lies in engagement with the Iranian people, rather than their repressive, unrepresentative government.