June 25, 2005

What Next for Iran?

Guy Dinmore in the FT:

US "hawks", he [Ken Pollack] said, had a bizarre preference for Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, a fundamentalist and hardliner, over Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who sought to establish his more pragmatic credentials in part by making overtures to the US during his election campaign.

For the US hardliners, led by Vice-President Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, Mr Rafsanjani presents the danger of exacerbating the divisions between the US, which is essentially trying to contain Iran, and Europe which favours the engagement approach.

The US hawks also believe that a convergence of hardliners in Iran with the victory of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is more likely to precipitate the collapse of the Islamic regime through popular unrest than the "Chinese model" of social pacification likely to be embraced by Mr Rafsanjani. One hardline official told the FT he saw no evidence that Mr Rasanjani was less committed to developing nuclear weapons. The Bush administration, he said, harboured deep scepticism over the prospects of success in the nuclear freeze talks with Iran led by France, Germany and the UK.

Well, Ahmadi-Nejad "won." But I'm far from certain that a "convergence of hardliners" is "more likely to precipitate the collapse of the Islamic regime." Frankly, I doubt it. I wonder what people like Michael Leeden or Danielle Pletka think? I'd wager Michael is probably not unhappy that Ahmadi-Nejad assumes the Iranian Presidency--believing the ultra-conservative Teheran mayor better presents the true 'face' of Iran to the world. And that a Ukraine scenario becomes more likely as Khatami-like incremental reforms have now been effectively quashed--leading to greater resentment in the country. Regardless, what is now pretty sure is that the prospects of a break-through in U.S.-Iranian relations are now hovering around less than zero with Ahmadi-Nejad's "victory" (though slight apertures for possible constructive dialogue can not be wholly discounted). Skeptics will say good, and that no real deal could have been struck with Rafsanjani anyway. Better that the "Shark" didn't hoodwink naive Euro-troika diplos and a too soft Foggy Bottom, the thinking goes. But with relations with Iran likely to be heading south, and with U.S.-Syrian relations fraught with tension--regional dynamics look to get increasingly difficult over the coming months.

A quick word on the electoral results themselves. I agree with Publius that turn-out was lower than many MSM outlets made it sound; and clearly there was much electoral malfeasance (for starters the whole permitted field of candidates was picked by the Mullah's from the very get-go). But there is an irony in all of this, of course. Bill Maynes, President of the Eurasia Foundation, recently wrote:

What was the most damaging charge one could make about another person during the Cold War and what is the most damaging charge one would make now that we have entered a Post-Cold-War world?

In the Cold War, the most damaging accusation would have been that one was disloyal to one’s country. The charge that one helped the other side was certainly career-ending and at times even life-threatening. Governments rose or fell in spy scandals.

In the Post-Cold-War world, the most damaging charge that can be leveled against an official is that he is corrupt. It is the charge of corruption that today threatens the stability of governments everywhere. Indeed, the allegation of corruption is as explosive in the West as it is in the East. [emphasis added]

Despite the electoral shenanigans, despire the corruption of Khamenei's circle (that Ahmadi-Nejad will duly serve)--it is likely that there was a good deal of genuine support for Ahmadi-Nejad's stemming from his ascetic image (contra the wealthy Rafsanjani's) and his anti-corruption platform. Such factors did sway many voters to his camp. Worth noting perhaps, I disagree with some observers who believe his support stemmed from a nationalist backlash because of U.S. troops on both of Iran borders and pressure on the nuclear issue. There may have been some of that, to be sure, but I think the much larger factor was how fed up Iranians are with corruption.

The Economist reports:

WAS it a backlash by Iran’s devoutly Muslim poor against a corrupt elite? Or was it a massive fraud perpetrated on the people by the hardline clerics? Perhaps it was a bit of both. Whatever the case, the margin of victory for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the second round of Iran’s presidential election, on Friday June 25th, was striking. Mr Ahmadinejad, the mayor of the capital, Tehran, and a hardline religious conservative, garnered around 62% of the vote, despite having gone almost unnoticed in the field of seven candidates who had contested the first round of voting, a week earlier...

...So what happened? At the end of the first round, one of the defeated reformists, Mehdi Karrubi, complained that the vote had been fixed. There were indeed some suspicious circumstances: for example, in South Khorasan province, home to many disgruntled Sunni Muslims, the official turnout was an improbable 95%; yet Mr Ahmadinejad, the candidate most associated with the assertive Shia Islamism of Iran’s clerical regime, won more than a third of the votes there. And while Friday’s second-round vote was still going on, Mr Rafsanjani’s aides were complaining of “massive irregularities”, accusing the Basij religious militia—in which Mr Ahmadinejad used to be an instructor—of intimidating voters to support their man.

However, whatever the extent of any vote-rigging, it seems unlikely that it was the only reason why Mr Rafsanjani did so badly. Conservative-minded Iranians, especially the devoutly Muslim poor, seem to have warmed to the austere Mr Ahmadinejad because of his modest lifestyle, his personal honesty and his reassuringly insular vision.

Mr Ahmadinejad presented himself as a committed follower of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and of the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; and he pledged to put the interests of the poor at the top of his priorities. In this he seems successfully to have tapped popular resentment at the country’s elite, widely held to be enriching itself corruptly. The wheeler-dealing and allegedly highly wealthy Mr Rafsanjani is seen as the very embodiment of that elite. Whereas Mr Rafsanjani argued for improved relations with America and increased foreign investment in Iran, Mr Ahmadinejad insisted there was no need for any rapprochement with the “Great Satan”, as official Iranian demonology labels the superpower.

Commenters are invited to predict what is next for Iran now that it is likely what we might have called Rafsanjani's nationalist, pragmatic "China" model is the road not taken. Will Ukraine style stirrings now become more likely, with younger Iranians increasingly disenchanted with the consolidation of power by ultra-conservatives? Or will a North Korea scenario take place, with a reactionary circle intent on becoming a nuclear power brutishly and successfully stamping out domestic dissent? Or something else?

Posted by Gregory at June 25, 2005 02:21 PM | TrackBack (22)

Nice post, Greg.

I think the results of the election beg even broader questions that extend beyond the borders of Iran; that of what are the ramifications for the democracy project in the region generally.

First, there are practical issues (eg how will Iranian hardliners approach the situation in neighboring Iraq? Will they seek to interfere?).

Second, there are philosophical questions (eg what does the election tell us about how Islamic populations will vote given autonomy? What are the prospects for the Iraqi population establishing and maintaining a western style democracy in Iraq?)

I see the coruption factor as a red herring. Clearly, the majority of politically active Iranians (as defined by being at least interested enough to vote) eschewed moderation in favor of the conservative hard line. They made that choice with full knowledge of what would follow as domestic policy because they've been there before.

Even if corruption played a role in the decision making process, the Iranian populace must see old school religious rule as being a minor cost; and should give us some important insight into the mindset of the Islamic populace.

Again, I think that the results of this election bode badly for the hypothesized benefits (to the US) of Islamic democratization.

Posted by: avedis at June 26, 2005 05:13 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Pollack now counts telepathy among his analytical skills?

Posted by: Dan Darling at June 26, 2005 07:56 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Why would Iranians raised during an Islamic revolution choose a Western style liberal democratic system? We may strongly believe in our way of life but that does not mean others do.

Posted by: Bev de Corbin at June 26, 2005 09:18 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Ahmadi-Nejad ran on a platform of saving Iran's highly dysfunctional economy, but it is very hard to see how he is going to do that. As he himself said, the problem is corrupt clerics who run most of the industry and keep much of the oil income for themselves. They are not going to give up their wealth and control without a terrific fight, and it is hard to see how Ahmadi-Nejad could accumulate enough political power to defeat them.

But even if Ahmadi-Nejad manages to grab control of the economy away from clerics, what is he doing to do? Ahmadi-Nejad is a highly conservative Islamist, and so he wants to run the economy under a set of Koranic rules designed for a pre-modern, pre-industrial, semi-feudal society. Perhaps his changes will envigorate the economy for a few years, but it seems pretty certain it is going to continue to go downhill over the long term.

That in turn could lead to a revolution, which, as far as I can see, is the only way real change could come to Iran. The neocons are pretty wacky on a lot of topics, but on this one I happen to agree.

In any case, we should all pay very careful attention to Ahmadi-Nejad's economic policies: what he says his government is doing, what it really does, and what effect it has.

Posted by: Les Brunswick at June 26, 2005 10:38 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

BD has drunk the refreshing comforting Kool-aid of Rumsfeld-Cheney hatred(soon to be followed by Bush hatred)
US "hawks", he [Ken Pollack] said, had a bizarre preference for Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, a fundamentalist and hardliner, over Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani,

This attack on Rumsfeld-Cheney, let me use bizarre attack on Rumsfeld-Cheney, by BD just so you are absolute sure as to my biases ,is attributed to hardliners by a unnamed source .Shouldn't the attacks wait until hardliners at least make a public statements that's what they believe.
Even if those Evil hardliners( a source tells me that BD does think of hardliners as Evil) have a preference for Mahmoud Ahma-Neja. What that tells me is they think Rafsanjani is not a democrat and not a liberalizer but just the representative of a different faction of the Islamic fundamentalist regime that controls Iran. They think Rafsanjani might be a more effective promoter of the objectives of that regime which are not in the interest of the US nor in the interest of the Middle East .That doesn't sound to Bizarre to me.

Posted by: Peter at June 27, 2005 01:35 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Considering that many newspaper stories , like that
by Knight Ridder's Soraya Nelson, and the AP' Kathy Gannon, leave out the most important qualification of Mssr. Ahmadinejad; his membership
in the IRGC, (Iranian secret police) known for repression at home, and training terrorist cadres
abroad; instead defined him as an engineer, concidentally the same profession as Osama Bin
Laden, Reuter's dissident, I see a serious level of
misrepresentation. Guy Dinsmore, reflects the view
of those who would like Anglo Persian back in Iran,
any concessions needed.

Posted by: narciso at June 27, 2005 02:16 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

In his "quick word" on Iran's "electoral results," Mr. Djerejian agreed with "Publius that turn-out was lower than many MSM outlets made it sound; and clearly there was much electoral malfeasance (for starters the whole permitted field of candidates was picked by the Mullah's from the very get-go). But there is an irony in all of this, of course."

This same description could apply to some elections in the United States where many people don't vote, and complain afterwards about the person elected. We've also heard charges of electoral malfeasance. The 2000 and 2004 presidential elections come readily to mind.

In addition, most candidates in the U.S. are slated by the Democratic and Republican parties, which virtually guarantees that an independent won't have a chance in a Federal, State or local election.

Given that, how is the Iranian presidential election any different from one in the U.S.? At least people had more candidates to choose from in the first round. Contrast that to the U.S. where we only have two candidates and sometimes a woefully underfunded independent to choose from.

The point is that whether we like it or not, the people voted and chose Iran's president. The same could be said for the U.S.: George W. Bush is our president whether we like it or not.

Posted by: Munir Umrani at June 27, 2005 02:32 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

That in turn could lead to a revolution, which, as far as I can see, is the only way real change could come to Iran.

actually, real change was happening in Iran.... and there is a very strong possibility that "reform" would have continued had it not been for Bush's agressive rhetoric toward Iran, and the invasion of Iraq, which made it far easier for the clerics to suppress dissent (kinda what Karl Rove is trying to do by branding liberals as "traitors".)

but at this point in time, the last thing the US wants in Iran is revolution, because it would be very messy, and highly likely to screw with the world's crude oil supply for an extended period of time. The economic repercussions of the loss of a considerable percentage of Iran's oil output would make the Great Depression look like (to coin a phrase) "a cakewalk".

It may well be that the neo-cons see unrest in Iran as a good thing --- if Iran goes into civil war mode, and there are US forces in Iraq that can "protect" the oil infrastructure, well, what better excuse is there for the US to send its military into Iran?

Posted by: p.lukasiak at June 27, 2005 03:01 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The question is does the new guy have enough legitimacy and power to govern? The less legitimacy the more power. The fact that so few voted may mean he has a legitimacy problem.

If you read the always useful:


You would hear of street battles and often whole cities rising up in opposition. The kind of repports that one saw often in the last days of the Shah.

My prediction; the harder they crack down on the citizens the more opposition they will get.

Iran is just below the boiling point. I give the regime less than a year.

Posted by: M. Simon at June 27, 2005 03:07 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

BTW p.lukasiak and I agree on the scenario. I was saying this about a year or so ago.

I see it as a good thing.

p.lukasiak is perhaps of a different opinion.

In any case the odds for this scenario or something similar are rising.

Posted by: M. Simon at June 27, 2005 03:12 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


"Or something else?"

Do you think the possibility has increased that the United States will undertake a military strike against Iran? Or do the factors that weighed against it before the election still weigh against it now? If so, what would a nuclear Iran mean for the Middle East?

Posted by: David at June 27, 2005 03:20 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The scenario being:

Unrest "requiring" the intervention of the US Military.

Posted by: M. Simon at June 27, 2005 03:25 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Nuclear weapons are no good against internal unrest.

Democracy promotion is the counter strategy to nuclear weapons.

Posted by: M. Simon at June 27, 2005 03:29 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Oh please. It's amusing to see people turn themselves inside out justifying the "victory" in Stalinesque terms of a guy who wants to execute gays and force women back into the hijab and out of public life, just because he hates America as much as they do.

What else do you expect, from those who hate the West and modernity more than real evil. Well, of course no non-White, non-Christian can ever do anything wrong unless evil Chimpy McBushitler forced them to do it. Moral relativism at it's finest, or worse.

Greg -- the reason I don't think Bush gave a damn about who won because it was fixed in advance. It was as scripted as professional wrestling minus the "entertainment" values. If you think that was a real election I have a friend in Nigeria. It amuses me to see also the logical contortions people force themselves into to justify the "election" of this thug, thinking that hey, a guy who ran the frickin Basijis couldn't POSSIBLY ever be involved in something fradulent.

Iran is sinking into terminal decline. Unless it opens to the West in personal freedom and space if not politics ala China, it will continue to decline. The regime can't even offer THAT. So naturally they will pick a fight with GWB. Luksiaks logical gyrations (the Regime is really peace and hugs and puppies, if only evil Chimpy McHitler Bush had ruined everything) flies in the face of what we know, which is stoning of women to death for adultery, or hanging 16 year old girls for the same "crime." By all measures the regime is horribly repressive and getting worse.

A nuking of a US city to "drive the US Navy out of the Gulf" is probably inevitable. The new idiot is even less informed than the old one about the West and America, he probably believes the garbage bin Laden's pals who took refuge in Iran tell him. Yes sadly this is what we are looking at. The Iranian regime NEEDS conflict with the US to keep it's power, all else including the people (of course) is dispensible.

Posted by: Jim Rockford at June 27, 2005 03:31 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

OT: I hadn't realized a "friend in Nigeria" has become the new "bridge in Brooklyn". I guess it is more appropriate for the times... (though I still expect to see company logos on the Brooklyn Bridge at some point - and what happened to the subway stations' ad programs?).

Posted by: TG at June 27, 2005 04:24 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

it was kinda like a "red state" victory, just for devout muslims (instead of evangelical christians :) e.g. a vote by working class and rural citizens for a return to conservative religious values and against liberal elitism!

Posted by: georgio at June 27, 2005 04:29 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think we can pretty much discount all the options that you list bar the something else.

There's absolutely no chance of Iran going down either the Ukraine or North Korea roads - let's face it - Iranian exiles going back to blog the elections is about as far removed that you can be from the hermit totalitarianism of Pyongyang, and still be on the Bush administration hit list.

Likewise, rumours of the clerical regime's demise are usually exaggerated and, generally, silly pieces of wishful thinking.

I have no idea what Ahmadinejad will do - but it's clear that he has a big domestic agenda to do with getting the economy to work for ordinary Iranians, and he takes power at a point when circumstances are favorable for success on that front. So, my guess is that he will be economically redistributive, possibly even progressive ( Chavez the model, perhaps? ), and, perhaps surprisingly, less socially rigid than has been assumed he will be.

As regards external relations - I would guess that he will be more direct than his predecessors. I've no doubt that, along with other Iranians, he'd like constructive relations with the US - but I doubt he's going to hold his breath on that; what's the point in waiting around for the bus that never comes when there are plenty of other willing partners, both to the East and in Europe.

As ever, the issue is not really Iran - it's Washington. I take issue with your description of Ahmadinejad's election being in any way a substantive factor in the question of US-Iranian relations - it's not as if the Bush administration has shown any signs of actually wanting to talk to anyone in Teheran, and that is the reason why things hover close to zero; what surprises me is that whilst you know that, you can't express the unvarnished reality - why? I'd really like to know the answer. The only way that relations can head south is if the Bush administration actually bombs Iran - again, you know that, so I really wonder what you're trying to say here. We both know that the most likely outcome is either a kind of cold rapprochement or continuation of the current status quo. The problem for the Bush administration is that Teheran can live with the status quo - it's done so for 25 years already and is clearly getting stronger, not weaker.

If the Bush administration finally gets a policy beyond the now off-the-agenda bombing option, then things might happen. I don't fancy holding my breath until 2009 though.

Posted by: dan at June 27, 2005 04:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Noteworthy perhaps is that American "hardliners" on Iran opposed Rafsanjani because they do not trust him. Evidently it is not just with Americans that he has this problem.

I'm not shedding any tears for someone like this. However, still unanswered is the question of how much authority the new President will have. He is probably close to a novice as far as military and foreign policy issues are concerned, but it may be more significant that he ran on a platform of opposition to corruption, something that the most conservative clerics might object to if they think he means their corruption. Khatami was supposed to have been a reformer when he was elected, and was hamstrung. Could the same thing happen to Ahmadi-Nejad? What might be the consequences if it did?

Posted by: JEB at June 27, 2005 08:53 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


I agree with your two points (Iran is not North Korea but neither is it about to become another Ukraine). But I wonder if you could amplify your statement below:

"If the Bush administration finally gets a policy beyond the now off-the-agenda bombing option, then things might happen."

Has bombing been taken off the agenda? Assuming it has, won't Iran then acquire nuclear weapons, and if it does, what effect will that have on the Middle East?

I agree that it won't do much to make Iran more internally stable but I wonder what a nuclear Iran would mean to the larger Middle East.

Posted by: David at June 27, 2005 10:29 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Good stuff here ...

For a slightly different take on Iran, check out:

"What’s the Matter with Khorasan? Iranians as Manipulated as Americans"

It's at: http://www.grokyourworld.com/louisxiv/


Posted by: Grok Your World.com at June 27, 2005 11:52 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Regarding economic policy, this article says Ahmadinejad is going for a North Korean command model. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, at least over the long term.


Posted by: Les Brunswick at June 28, 2005 02:00 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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