- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
I wasn’t able to do any posting over the past few days, but I did want to add my two cents to the commentary on the almost-certainly fraudulent election in Iran. The entire business suggests to me that the ruling elite in Iran is increasingly out-of-touch with broader segments of Iranian society. It’s not just that Iran’s current leaders oppose the liberal reforms sought by many ordinary Iranians; it is rather that they don’t seem to be as tuned in to these forces or particularly adept at manipulating them.
First, the ruling forces (including Ahmadinejad) appear to have been taken by surprise by the outpouring of popular enthusiasm for reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi in the weeks before the election. Even if Ahmadinejad would have won fair-and-square, it looks to me like the clerics, the military, and the current President all panicked. The disconnect between regime and population isn’t all that surprising: about 70 percent of Iran’s population is under thirty, which means they were born after the 1979 revolution and have little memory of the Iran-Iraq war. At this point, a middle-aged former revolutionary like Ahmadinejad doesn’t have much in common with those younger Iranians who have embraced many aspects of modern global culture (music, the internet, Facebook etc.). Indeed, he’s beginning to remind me of a middle-aged parent who can’t stand the music his kids are listening to, has no idea why they spend so much time online, and couldn’t do a simple file-share without asking for help. Ahmadinejad may be a skilled populist rabble-rouser in some ways, but hip he ain’t. And that means he and the clerics are in fact in charge of a society that they increasingly do not understand.
Second, the way the election results were manipulated was crude and unconvincing. As Juan Cole has convincingly argued, the pattern of election results, as well as the speed with they were announced by some officials, was simply not credible. A clever and well-executed strategy to steal the election would have had given Mousavi a large enough share to convince his followers they had been heard, but not large enough to force a runoff or to make them think that some sort of recount was necessary. Again, this speaks of a government machine that was worried, heavy-handed, and anything but subtle. The outpouring of popular protest and the forceful government response to it (which has included efforts to shut down communication with the outside world) also reveals a government that is in fact increasingly isolated from large segments of Iranian society.
So what does it all mean? The election and the subsequent protests do not mean that another Iranian revolution is imminent, although this morning’s reports of protest activity and Ayatollah Khamenei’s flip-flopping does make me wonder. See the rapid-fire, too-many-to-link-to reports on Andrew Sullivan’s blog here. Remember: Ahmadinejad does have a substantial body of genuine supporters, authoritarian regimes have many tools they can use to retain power, and revolutionary collapses are inherently hard to predict.
But overall, this entire episode is a setback for the clerical regime. The claim to some degree of democratic legitimacy (however truncated) has been one of Iran’s main public relations assets in recent years (especially when compared with many of its neighbors); that claim has now been badly tarnished if not utterly demolished. As with Ahmadinejad’s various diplomatic gaffes, the “election” will make it easier for the United States to round up diplomatic support for its positions (though not in Russia or China, for whom electoral proprieties are hardly a major concern). But no government can be happy to see so many citizens — and especially younger citizens — so obviously disaffected.
For its part, the Obama administration should stay pretty much on course for now. Many Iranians clearly want a more normal relationship with the outside world — including the United States — and Obama’s approach makes it harder for the regime to use the American bogeyman to stimulate Iranian nationalism and thereby bolster its position. Moreover, a U.S. attempt to exploit popular discontent is likely to backfire, because it will reinforce long-standing (and I am sorry to say, amply justified) Iranian suspicions that the United States simply cannot resist interfering in Iran’s domestic politics.
In the end, what really matters is the content of any subsequent U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, not the precise nature of the Iranian regime. If diplomatic engagement led to a good deal, then it wouldn’t matter much who was running Iran. By the same logic, we shouldn’t accept a bad deal even if we were happier with the outcome of this election. And there’s no reason to think that Mousavi would have been substantially more forthcoming on the nuclear issue than Ahmadinejad has been. So while I’m as disappointed as anyone in the outcome thus far, I want to wait and see how the two sides respond once the dust has settled.