Could there be a Mousavi Effect?

I’m riveted by the unfolding Iranian election campaign. Back in April, I organized a panel discussion on the election with a number of very keen observers of Iranian politics, and came away even more confused than before (not their fault!)… and I’ve been following the ups and downs of the debates and the energized public ...

585046_090611_mousavi2.jpg
585046_090611_mousavi2.jpg
A supporter of Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi holds his picture during a street campaign rally at Azadi Square in Tehran on June 10, 2009. Iran chooses a new president on June 12 in what is emerging as a two-horse race between moderate ex-premier Mousavi and incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose turbulent four years in office have been marked by a nuclear standoff with the West and deep economic crisis. AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

I’m riveted by the unfolding Iranian election campaign. Back in April, I organized a panel discussion on the election with a number of very keen observers of Iranian politics, and came away even more confused than before (not their fault!)… and I’ve been following the ups and downs of the debates and the energized public discourse as closely as I can. I don’t know what’s going to happen any more than anyone else does. But suppose that Mir Hossein Mousavi wins — what might that do to regional politics?

Most people have quite naturally focused upon the spark it could give to U.S.-Iranian dialogue around the nuclear weapons question. This may be exaggerated — Mousavi would likely drive as hard a bargain on the nuclear question as would Ahmedenejad, especially given the realities of the power structure in Iran, and perhaps mighte even be a more effective bargainer without the incumbent’s sideshows and penchant for inflammatory rhetoric. But at least dialogue would get a jolt, and that would be a good thing.

But I wonder if the regional impact of a Mousavi victory might be something else entirely — strengthening Iranian “soft power” in the region. The Iranian election has already captivated the Arab public sphere — it has been all over the headlines and the TV stations. I imagine that many of the Arabs who see democracy as an important and positive issue find this Iranian election inspiring (as they did Khatemi’s 1997 campaign). The Arab public may regard a Mousavi victory as the same kind of opportunity to rethink relations with Iran as Obama’s victory offered for relations with the United States. Arab leaders may find it harder to mobilize opposition to Iran with the seemingly reasonable Mousavi in office than with the cheerfully inflammatory Ahmedenejad.

If a “Mousavi Effect” could open a window of opportunity for Iranian public diplomacy and soft power, the big question — just as it was for Obama — would be whether Iran would use that moment to reinforce existing lines of conflict or to break them down. Could direct renewed Iranian soft power towards rebuilding strained relations with Arabs and overcoming the “moderate camp vs resistance camp” narrative preferred by Ahmedenejad (and by the Bush administration and key Arab leaders such as Hosni Mubarak)? How would the Obama administration respond to such an Iranian public diplomacy offensive? In the end, that may be more important than the nuclear question for the future of the region.

Of course, if Ahmedenejad wins, the reverse effect may take hold. When George W. Bush defeated John Kerry in 2004, a very wide swathe of Arab public opinion concluded that this meant that the American people really did bear responsibility for Bush’s unpopular policies. If the U.S. is really a democracy, they asked, then didn’t Bush’s victory mean that his war on terror and invasion of Iraq really did represent the American popular will? If Ahmedenejad wins, the same dynamic may hit Iran in the Arab world: the Iranian people had the chance to correct their policies, and chose to continue as they were. That might lead to a hardening and deepening of anti-Iranian sentiment, at least among elites and leaders.

Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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