Learning to Live With the Devil We Know
The Iranian people went to the polls last Friday to elect a president. Pre-election polling showed the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, consistently holding a 2-to-1 advantage over his closest opponent, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi. When the final election results were announced by the Iranian Ministry of Interior (the agency responsible for counting the votes and publishing the results), President Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, with 63 percent of the vote — about a 2-to-1 advantage. And yet, when the northern suburbs of Tehran, home to a large number of moderate reform-minded Iranians who are vehemently opposed to Ahmadinejad, erupted in violent protest, and Mousavi began to cry fraud, the Western media immediately jumped on the bandwagon, giving birth to the “instant history” of the 2009 Iranian presidential elections.
Ahmadinejad’s electoral victory should have come as a surprise to no one. The controversy surrounding Iran’s president, at home and abroad, represented a double-edged sword capable of cutting not only the incumbent but those who opposed him. Thanks to the explosion in energy prices last year, the global economic crisis that threatened Ahmadinejad’s re-election chances was blunted by the newly filled coffers of the Iranian government. Awash in hard currency derived from the sale of Iran’s oil and gas (Iran is, after all, the world’s fifth largest producer of oil), Ahmadinejad successfully used the energy crisis to his political advantage.
Pundits and opponents can rail all they want about the temporary stability of the Iranian economy, noting quite accurately that the fundamental problems that afflict Iran’s economic engine have not been fixed. Once the price of oil stabilizes at a lower level more in line with the realities of supply and demand in a slow-growing global economy, Iran’s economic difficulties will re-emerge with a vengeance. But to the average Iranian on the street, pummeled by inflation and unemployment, the upswing in Iran’s economic fortune was directly tied to the policies of the country’s high-profile president, right or wrong.
Iran’s improved economic condition, however temporary, also strengthened Ahmadinejad’s hand when it came to managing Iran’s complex and controversial foreign relations situation. Until two years ago, the shunning of Iran by the West, spurred on by Ahmadinejad’s hard-line positions on nuclear energy, Iraq and Israel, was creating a backlash among a significant segment of the population of Iran, including Ahmadinejad’s political base. The underprivileged who brought Ahmadinejad to power found themselves bearing the brunt of the economic consequences of political isolation and economic sanctions. Popular opinion held that Ahmadinejad had gone too far, and that there was a need for more moderate policies designed to ease tensions with the West and improve Iran’s economy. Iran’s economic surge, fueled more by higher oil and gas prices than sound economic policy, eliminated that domestic pressure almost overnight.
Moreover, aggressive and belligerent rhetoric emanating out of Israel and the United States — touting the possibility of military action against Iran in the hope that the Iranian people would be compelled to vote Ahmadinejad out of office if they were placed under the cloud of potential conflict — backfired. With food in their bellies and money in their pockets, Iranians increasingly rallied around their president in the face of the increasingly hawkish rhetoric coming from American and Israeli politicians and military officials. While President Barack Obama has called for unconditional talks with Iran and appealed for moderation in U.S.-Iran relations, the U.S. military and intelligence services continue to conduct covert operations designed to undermine the authority and viability of the current Iranian government. Ahmadinejad, given the focus of attention that had been placed on him, was able to tap into this wave of newfound Iranian nationalism in a very personal way, melding himself as one with all of Iran. Mousavi’s calls for improved ties with the West, when seen in this light, were counterproductive and severely damaged his election chances.
Due to the intervention of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s election results must now be certified by the Guardian Council of the Constitution, a powerful and influential body jointly appointed by the supreme leader and the Iranian Majlis, or parliament, for the purpose of ensuring that legislative actions are consistent with both Islam and the constitution. Khamenei had surprised many political observers when he quickly announced Ahmadinejad’s victory on Friday, and this action has been interpreted by many as a clear indication that Khamenei is behind the fixing of the presidential election. There is no doubt that bad blood existed between Mousavi and Khamenei (Mousavi was prime minister at the same time that Khamenei was Iran’s president, and the two have been bitter political rivals since then). But Khamenei has also butted heads repeatedly with Ahmadinejad, especially on issues pertaining to corruption in the running of government and among the clergy. Khamenei’s motivations appear to be governed less by partisan politics and more by a desire to preserve the integrity and stature of the Islamic nature of the Iranian government and state. The decision by Khamenei to have the Guardian Council intervene in the certification of the election, made after Mousavi claimed that the Ministry of Interior had tampered with the election results to assure an Ahmadinejad victory, underscores this fact.Was there fraud involved in Iran’s presidential election? Almost certainly. One might argue that the heavy-handed involvement of unelected clerics in determining who gets to run for office in and of itself makes a fraud of the democratic process. A similar argument, however, could be made about the exclusivity of the two-party system in the United States today, and yet very few media pundits question the viability of America’s democratic system of government. The Western media, inflamed by sentiment and prejudice coming from the politically disaffected in northern Tehran, have underscored the fact that Iran’s Ministry of Interior is run by a close ally of Ahmadinejad. Given the blatant political partisanship and cronyism which have been witnessed in every major election in the United States, such observations coming out of Iran should carry little weight. We like to judge nations like Iran, especially when their elections don’t go the way we or our political allies desire, while turning a blind eye to the corruption and other manifestations of human imperfection in the American political system. The U.S. is a country, after all, where it costs a billion dollars to become president.
The undisputable fact remains that in the lead-up to Friday’s controversial presidential elections, scientific polling conducted by Western organizations such as the New America Foundation showed Ahmadinejad with a comfortable lead over Mousavi in all 30 of Iran’s provinces. Mousavi appeared to have captured the imagination of the Western press and punditry. But it is increasingly clear that, unless findings to the contrary are brought forward, he did not capture the votes of the majority of the Iranian people. The presence of tens of thousands of Mousavi supporters in the streets of Tehran does nothing to change this reality. The Western media’s repeated citation of unnamed sources claiming a Mousavi victory represents shoddy journalism and wishful thinking, nothing more.
The world needs to collectively move past the controversy of the Iranian elections and accept the reality that, like him or not, President Ahmadinejad will be the “democratically elected” face of Iran for the next four years. Regardless, the fact remains that there are two other individuals in Iran who hold real power, and with whom the West must engage if progress on the serious issues of Iran’s nuclear program, as well as peace and stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, is to be had. These are the speaker of the Iranian Majlis, Ali Larijani, and the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Both of these men possess more constitutional power than does the Iranian president, and as such both are far more important and influential when it comes to impacting the critical issues which define Iran’s relationship with the West, Iran’s nuclear program first and foremost. America and the West need to learn to live with the devil we know — Ahmadinejad — all the while recognizing that the Iranian president, while a nuisance, does not hold the key to improved relations. Western media ought to spend more time focusing on the realities of Iran’s political system and less time facilitating the spread of increasingly partisan gossip.
The Iranian presidential election will continue to dominate the imagination — and headlines — of the Western media for the next few weeks. But unless some dramatic new information emerges which proves widespread election fraud, the reality is that the Guardian Council will, in the next 10 days, certify Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the legally elected president of Iran. After this happens, life in Iran will gradually return to normal, and the political protests so earnestly covered by the West will take on the character of a tempest in a teapot. Mir Hossein Mousavi will disappear from the front pages of the leading newspapers, replaced by far more important subjects, such as Iran’s nuclear program. The sooner this happens, the better, because from the standpoint of international peace and security, how the world manages Iran’s nuclear ambition is far more important than who claims the title of president of Iran.
Scott Ritter is a former U.N. weapons inspector and military intelligence officer. He is the author of numerous books, including “Target Iran: The Truth About the White House’s Plans for Regime Change.” This week, Ritter’s “Dinner With Ahmed” was recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club as the best online article of the year.