Iran Elections: What Happened? What Now?

Over at New Atlanticist, I’ve published my thoughts on this weekend’s Iranian election mess in two separate posts: Iran’s Elections: What We Know (And What We Don’t) and Iran’s Elections: What Now?

The short answers:  “Not a whole hell of a lot” and “The same thing we do every day, Pinky.”

I’m reasonably sure that the elections were stolen. Indeed, I’m not convinced that the regime even bothered to count the vote. But, like my colleague Dave Schuler, I considered the elections a sham from the get-go.  For that matter, I thought Iran’s elections were a sham four years ago.

I feel for those poor kids in all the photos, videos, and Tweets Andrew Sullivan has posted over the last three days.  At the end of the day, though, Joe Biden is right: “Talks with Iran are not a reward for good behavior.  Our interests are the same before the election as after … and that is we want them to cease and desist from seeking a nuclear weapon and having one in its possession and secondly to stop supporting terror.”

Our interests in the region are unchanged.  So, for that matter, are the Iranian regime’s. All that’s different now is that any Western notions that they’re dealing with a democratic regime have been dashed. To the extent that our negotiators harbored such illusions, this weekend’s rude awakening is a necessary dose of reality.

Much more at the links.

Photo: Reuters Pictures.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, World Politics, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. PD Shaw says:

    I considered the elections a sham from the get-go. For that matter, I thought Iran’s elections were a sham four years ago.

    And thus the insidious nature of framing this as about a “stolen” election. It assumes that justice and democracy are a matter of getting the vote right, which turn plays into proceduralism and the appointment of a committee. All the revolutionary guard needs is time to start disappearing the people in the pictures.

    The system is unjust and undemocratic, as is the Supreme Leader.

  2. PD:

    Equally insidious is making the perfect the enemy of the good.

    The Moussavi voters were attempting, I believe, to use the election to make incremental progress — the only progress available to them at the moment. They were inching the ball forward.

    The increasingly obvious fact that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei felt the need to steal the election and to so in a crude and panicky way is proof that they at least took the results seriously.

    The mullahs took it seriously, the Revolutionary Guard took it seriously, a lot of people bleeding in the streets took it seriously, and because they took it seriously the regime has taken at very least a hard blow. Maybe even a damaging blow.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    How were they inching the ball forward? It was only the Presidency for Jiminy’s sake.

    Iran’s Leader — or as he insists on being called, “Supreme Leader” — Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the one who has both the constitutional authority and the power in practice to call the shots on foreign and security policy. Iran’s presidents are more cheerleader-in-chief than commander-in-chief (Khamenei controls the armed forces, among his many other powers). The nuclear issue is firmly in his hands. That said, the choice of president is important. Not because the president has much authority on the issues we care most about, but because the choice says much about the Leader’s intentions. When the Leader is confident that the Islamic Republic can ignore the West, he sanctions the elections of a hardliner like Mahmood Ahmadinejad. When the Leader is persuaded that Iran has to sound more conciliatory – to blow smoke in our eyes instead of spitting in them – he allows a reformer” to win.

    Patrick Clawson

  4. How were they inching the ball forward?

    I think they hoped for some easing in lifestyle restrictions, perhaps some greater democratization, more openness.

    The alternative point of view is that the intelligentsia of Iran — the college students, professors, professionals — who appear to constitute a large part of the rioters, are fighting and perhaps dying for nothing at all.

    That may be the case. But I doubt it. I think they probably have a more nuanced understanding of their system than we do. I think they’re fighting because they know their vote would have mattered.

    And you’re left to explain why a government holding a sham election needs to steal that election. After all, if it doesn’t matter why not shrug and say, “Oh, hey, we recounted and it turns out Moussavi won.”

  5. Drew says:

    Narcissism turns sour:

    “We are excited to see what appears to be a robust debate taking place in Iran and obviously, after the speech that I made in Cairo, we tried to send a clear message that we think there’s a possibility of change. And ultimately, the election is for the Iranians to decide. But just as what has been true in Lebanon, what can be true in Iran as well, is that you’re seeing people looking at new possibilities. And whoever ends up winning the election in Iran, the fact that there’s been a robust debate hopefully will help advance our ability to engage them in new ways.”

    Maybe we can’t !!

  6. James H says:

    Some of the material Sullivan has covered (and a couple things I’ve read elsewhere) suggest this election isn’t a contest over Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, but is rather a power struggle between Rafsanjani and Khameini. The Assembly of Experts, which Rafsanjani chairs, has the ability to depose the supreme leader. Now, check this out (via Sully):

    The trillion-dollar-question regarding this new “revolutionary” situation is that as things stand, no pacifying solution can be found within the institutional framework of the Islamic Republic. In a nutshell, Ahmadinejad has made his power play against Mousavi and Rafsanjani. The Supreme Leader fully supported him. Mousavi and Rafsanjani, plus Khatami, need an urgent counterpunch. And their only possible play is to go after Khamenei.

    As Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council, among others, has noted, Rafsanjani is now counting his votes at the Council of Experts (86 clerics, no women) – of which he is the chairman – to see if they are able to depose Khamenei. He is in the holy city of Qom for this explicit purpose. To pull it off, the council would imperatively have to be supported by at least some factions within the IRGC. The Ahmadinejad faction will go ballistic. A Supreme Leader implosion is bound to imply the implosion of the whole Khomeini-built edifice.

    The further I read into Rafsanjani, though, the less I think this is going to be a new democratic spring for Iran. If Rafsanjani manages to depose Khameini, Iran would trade one set of religious elites for another.

  7. Wayne says:

    Iran voted. They are a representative government. Any law they pass is right since it is the law and was passed by a representative government. Majority rules so the minority even if they are 48% of population must shut up and blindly follow their leader. If they hope their leader fails in implementing his policies, they should be considered traitors. No one should care if the media is in the back pocket and\or control by the country’s leader. (Sarcasm off) Sound familiar?

  8. PD Shaw says:

    And you’re left to explain why a government holding a sham election needs to steal that election

    I don’t know that I need to explain anything. All of the Presidential elections in Iran since ’79 have been shams. Why did Saddam Hussein need to win a unanimous election? In dicatorships, elections (and trials) serve the purpose of show.

  9. James H says:

    PD —

    Also, keep in mind that there’s a fair bit of politicking within the ranks of the mullahs. That politicking could play out with presidential candidates as stalking horses.

  10. “We won.” — Barack Obama Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

  11. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Wonder when we will hear something from the Obama administration concerning this issue? Obama has time to talk about health care reform. Not much time to deal with this situation. Wonder why the boy wonder has not spread his pixie dust over this conflict and resolved it?

  12. boy wonder

    That would be the President of the United States, or at a minimum Mr. Obama.

    As for why he hasn’t jumped into the middle of this I suppose that would be because he’s not an idiot.

  13. anjin-san says:

    Maybe we can’t !!

    Obviously that is your hope…

  14. sam says:

    @Charles

    “We won.” — Barack Obama Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

    Unworthy of you, Charles. Shallow and unworthy.

  15. Drew says:

    “Obviously that is your hope…”

    Those mind reading skills of yours are failing.

    My “expectation” – from a reality based adult’s point of view – vs “hope” from a college sophomore’s point of view.

    Solly.

  16. anjin-san says:

    Drew I would never try to read your mind. Once I got past your impressive knowledge of audio equipment, the dullness would be coma inducing.

    But I see you have learned Bitsy’s trick of patting yourself on the back. Dude, you got skills…

  17. An Interested Party says:

    Sound familiar?

    Why yes it does…we heard such noises from certain quarters after the 2004 elections…and of course any dissent pointing out the disaster that was the Iraq occupation (not to mention how we got into Iraq) was considered by some to be traitorous…

  18. An Interested Party says:

    By the way, how nice of so many of you to try to use what is happening in Iran as some kind of partisan club to hit the president with…I assume this latest swipe will have the glorious effectiveness of previous swipes…yes, his days are so numbered…

  19. sam, perhaps. I’m really trying to get out of snarkland, but it is tough.

  20. steve says:

    There seems to be a fair amount of tension amongst the senior clerics. Also, Iran has a very high percentage of young people. They do not remember the Revolution. It certainly seems as though there is some real sentiment to want to do away with some of the harshest religious proscriptions. Iran has a history of mass demonstrations and the people seem to feel pretty free to criticize government, and even the Supreme Leader as long as they avoid a few key taboo topics.

    Steve

  21. PD Shaw says:

    James H:

    Also, keep in mind that there’s a fair bit of politicking within the ranks of the mullahs.

    That’s a good point, that’s where the politics is. It’s unelected politics, but it is politics.

    And you’re earlier point about Rafsanjani is well taken as well. His reputation as a pragrmatic hardliner has attracted people who thought Khamenei was too traditional in his approach.

  22. anjin-san says:

    Well lets look at the history of Iran. It overthrew an opressive government just 30 years ago. (Replaced it with an even worse one, but that is another story).

    Now when has Iran ever launched a suicidal war? Or even started a garden variety one for that matter…

  23. […] our political interests in Iran are “unchanged,” though only in a realpolitik sense—that is to say, only if we give up any notion that this […]

  24. sam says:

    sam, perhaps. I’m really trying to get out of snarkland, but it is tough.

    S’Ok, Charles, I was feeling cranky yesterday. God knows I’m as guilty as anyone re the snark. It is tough when there’s such a target-rich environment. (See, there I go again, I think 🙂 )
    I was reading some YouTube commentary a few days ago. At least we haven’t descended to that level. Those comment threads make those old Usenet flame wars look like Plato’s diaglogues.

  25. sam says:

    BTW, guys, and OT (well maybe not), today is Bloomsday. Let’s all lift a Guinness for the greatest English-speaking writer of the 20th century:

    I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

  26. James H says:

    Time has a bit about Rafsanjani on its Web site.

    IMO, two factors are worth remembering:

    First, that the street protests, demonstrations, counter-demonstrations, violence and so forth are political theater. The passions are real, and the injuries are certainly real. I don’t mean to minimize those. But absent an actual full-throated revolt, the real conflict is between factions in the “mullah” portion of Iran’s mullahocracy, and it will actually be resolved there. For the past couple days, I’ve wondered if the REAL conflict is not between Moussavi and Ahmadinejad, but rather between Rafsanjani and Khameini. If the latter, then both parties have a vested interest in preserving the legitimacy of the Iranian republic … whatever the heck that means.

    Second, it’s entirely possible that Ahmadinejad DID legimately win a majority in the election. One possible scenario is that he earned that majority, but that his fixers discredited the election because they overplayed their hand. Tehran protests aside, Ahmadinejad does command significant support in Iran … in no small part because he denounces the “corrupt” Rafsanjani!

  27. Eric Florack says:

    That would be the President of the United States, or at a minimum Mr. Obama.


    Why?

    After two decades of comparions to Hitler, to Stalin to the “What me worry” guy, and so on, why should we even breifly consider giving this moron any thing other than what the left gave us?

    Explain this.

  28. Eric Florack says:

    Unworthy of you, Charles. Shallow and unworthy.

    And close enough to reality to cause some discomfort, I see.

  29. Eric Florack says:

    First, that the street protests, demonstrations, counter-demonstrations, violence and so forth are political theater. The passions are real, and the injuries are certainly real. I don’t mean to minimize those. But absent an actual full-throated revolt, the real conflict is between factions in the “mullah” portion of Iran’s mullahocracy, and it will actually be resolved there. For the past couple days, I’ve wondered if the REAL conflict is not between Moussavi and Ahmadinejad, but rather between Rafsanjani and Khameini. If the latter, then both parties have a vested interest in preserving the legitimacy of the Iranian republic … whatever the heck that means.

    Aha. Brain power in action. An interesting change, I must say.

    It’s true; the real power is nestled in the skinnt backsides of the mullahs, and the rest of this is all for show.

    But I’m curious as to what you think a grass roots rebellion would look like, if not this.

    After all, the govenment, legitimately elected or not, is the ones with the guns, and the militias. How much more rebelion would there possibly be? Seems to me unusual in the exreme that Iranians should be raising their voices against their government at all, so tight (And deadly, historically speaking) have the controls been. That I suppose to be as close to open rebellion as you’re going to get given the situation.

  30. James H says:

    Yes, this does look a lot like revolution, but that doesn’t mean it is. Moussavi has been quite clever exploiting similarities between the current situation and the 1979 revolution against the Shah, but that still doesn’t mean this is a revolution.

    Despite the Twitterized grass roots, despite the throngs marching through Tehran and other Iranian cities, the people who matter — the real power players — are still members of Iran’s political elite. To my eye, that makes the current “Green Revolution” less of a true grass-roots rebellion and more of a contest between rival elements of the mullah-ocracy. The grass-roots marches, IMO, are one more lever that the Moussavi faction and its backers can use against Khameini and Ahmadinejad.

    Largely unaddressed in Western media’s breathless coverage is Ahmadinejad’s own basis of support. Despite allegations of a fixed election (and the probability the election WAS crooked), Iran’s incumbent president does have a significant populist constituency. There’s a reason his attacks on Rafsanjani for corruption have bite. People, particularly poorer individuals in rural areas, believe in him.

  31. Explain this.

    I can’t speak to your straw men. I referred to President Bush using that term, or “Mr. Bush,” or if I had already used one of those forms of address in a paragraph, “Bush.”

    I didn’t like him but he was the President of the United States, my president, and entitled to be properly addressed.

  32. anjin-san says:

    Seems to me unusual in the exreme that Iranians should be raising their voices against their government at all, so tight (And deadly, historically speaking) have the controls been.

    Why? Because by your lights, Iranians could not possibly love freedom or be willing to die for it?

    Sadly, this will probably all be for naught. But watch closely bit, and learn the difference between actually being willing to go out and put your ass on the line for freedom and talking tough on a blog.

  33. anjin-san says:

    After two decades of comparions to Hitler, to Stalin to the “What me worry” guy, and so on, why should we even breifly consider giving this moron any thing other than what the left gave us?

    Thank you for the conclusive proof that you are no more than the flip side of the people you make so much noise about despising.

  34. PD Shaw says:

    I’m curious as to what you think a grass roots rebellion would look like, if not this.

    IMO, a rebellion would challenge the structures of power, not who wields it.

  35. James H says:

    IMO, a rebellion would challenge the structures of power, not who wields it.

    But one kind of demand for change can morph into another, depending how those in power react to the challenges. Recall that the American Revolution, for example, began not as a declaration of independence (to coin a phrase) from the English monarchy, but rather with a demand for representation in the English government.

  36. PD Shaw says:

    If, as Robert Fisk opines, the people on the street are content with the regime, but want to see the proper person in power, then the demonstrations at most will result in a power-sharing arrangement and a grateful Moussavi telling his supporters thanks, you can go home now. I don’t call this rebellion.

    If, as regime opponents believe, this is just one more grievance, the straw that broke the camel’s back, then it is simple rebellion that will turn on the power and cohesiveness of the IRG.

    It might be a mixture of both, obscured by the reality that the Presidential elections are not invested with the same religious imprimatur as the rest of the government. Some may feel willing to demonstrate only on this relatively secular point, whether or not they support the regime.