With the recent election of the controversial (to put it mildly) Ahmadinejad to the Iranian Presidency, it is time to look at what this portends for the future of Iran and the Middle East region in general.
The first question we need to ask is whether Ahmadinejad’s victory was free and fair. Stratfor believes it may well have been, describing it as a “triumph of both democracy and repression“. According to this narrative, Western liberals misread sentiment in Iran, seeing it in Manichean terms of a struggle between iPod youth (anyone who blogs, tweets, etc) and corrupt Islamist crustaceans. Yet in reality, except for a few urbane Anglophone professionals, there is no Iranian audience for Western iCivilization. Ahmadinehad appeals to a solid bloc based on his platform stressing Islamic piety (a return to the glory days of the early Revolution), combating corruption (in which many of the “liberal” clerics, as typified by Rafsanjani – an ally of Mousavi, are believed to be implicated in), promoting rural development and curbing inequality, and a strident foreign policy aimed at establishing Iran as a regional and nuclear Great Power. US Iran expert Flynt Leverett in Spiegel argues that allegations of fraud are based on nothing more than an extraordinary amount of wishful thinking by the US.
That said, there’s some pretty damning evidence to the contrary. Juan Cole compiled six reasons in Stealing the Iranian Election, where there is now a heated ongoing discussion. For instance, his support in the Azeri provinces was inexplicably high, considering that Mousavi, an ethnic Azeri, was popular there; he also won over the cities, where he isn’t as popular (on the other hand, the regional election results do show that the race was much closer in the Azeri areas and Tehran; in the Persian provinces, Ahmadinejad’s margin of victory was as high as 3:1). Other irregularities from established form, such as a suspicious uniformity paving over traditional regional and ethnic fluctuations. (Muhammad Sahimi notes that the election data shows “a perfect linear relation between the votes received by the President and Mir Hossein Mousavi” over time, with the incumbent always leading by a 2:1 ratio, which he argues is highly unlikely due to the fragmented character of Iran’s ethnic composition; however, it should be noted that this approach is flawed since much the same argument could be made for Obama’s win). Khamenei immediately approved the alleged results, foregoing the customary 3-day waiting period. The counting happened very quickly and Ahmadinejad declared a 64% victory immediately after the polling closer, not far from his official 62.6%. Etc, etc… you get the idea.
But then again… researchers Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty from the Terror Free Tomorrow outfit conducted a poll three weeks before the elections. It showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2:1 ratio, even amongst Azeris. As such, Ahmadinejad actually did worse in the polls than the survey may have indicated. Furthermore, support was highest for Ahmadinejad amongst that most networked (and supposedly pro-West, but not) age group, the 18-24 year olds. The leading candidates were Ahmadinehad (34%) and Mousavi (14%), with Karroubi and Rezai polling insignificant support. 27% were in the “I Don’t Know” category, 15% didn’t answer and 8% said none, folks whom the pollsters expected to lean heavily towards Mousavi. As covered by Langer,
Rather it leaped in another direction, noting that “the race may actually be closer than a first look at the numbers would indicate,” because more than six in 10 respondents who expressed no opinion “reflect individuals who favor political reform and change in the current system.” It went on to predict “that none of the candidates will likely pass the 50 percent threshold.”
And though this question on whether the elections is fascinating in its own right, I suspect pursuing it further will just lead to ever more circles of claim, refutation and counter-claim, frequently colored by ideology (whether it be neocon, revolutionary-Islamist, conservative-“liberal”-Islamist, or Westernism). For the record, I believe the weight of the evidence indicates that Ahmadinejad would have probably won anyway, with around 50% of the vote and a small risk of a runoff against Mousavi. Electoral engineering and use of administrative resources ramped it up by 10-15% to provide Ahmadinehad with a safe win.
Now, I’ll turn to a second, and more interesting, question – what does it mean for Iran’s political development, and the geopolitics of the region?
But first, a quick guide. Unlike Russia or Venezuela, there is little doubt that Iran is an authoritarian state. Though there is an active electoral process for the Majlis and the Presidency, it is heavily circumscribed by the unelected Guardian Council of clerics, now headed by Khamenei (the system is a unique hybrid of Velayat-e Faqih (rule by Islamic jurists) and modern parliamentary democracy). He has the supreme executive power over matters of state. Khamenei is seen as the real power in the land and is an ally of Ahmadinejad. These hardliners draw support from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG), a paramilitary organization that controls lucrative shares in the national economy and encompasses the Basij reserves forces. According to the Guardian,
Superimposed on this picture has been the widely-held belief – now surely established as accurate – that Khamenei has had the backing of a hard core of radical mullahs, revolutionary guards and intelligence officers who may not have been in the vanguard of the Islamic revolution but cut their teeth in Iran’s bloody 1980-88 war with Iraq.
The group, which has coalesced around Ahmadinejad, harbours dreams of transforming Iran from an Islamic republic to an Islamic government, a distinction which would do away with elections and the need to observe the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s invocation to respect the “people’s will”. By this vision, Iran would forever take its guidance only from the divine, in the form of an all-powerful spiritual leader.
Opposed is a conservative-Islamist (not to be confused with “moderate”, never mind “liberal) faction centered around Rafsanjani, the second most powerful man in the Islamic Republic, who is allied with Mousavi and former President Khatami. They favor business interests and reconciliation with the West. They have a reputation for corruption and their power is declining relative to Khamenei and the IRGC.
Stratfor believes the Iranian political system is approaching an impasse. According to their analysis, the “the cohesiveness of the Iranian state has been deteriorating, with a rift between the president’s ultra-conservative camp and the pragmatic conservative camp led by Rafsanjani”. This struggle, already inflamed by Ahmadinejad’s radical Presidency, has been brought to the fore by Obama’s offer of rapprochement – opposed by the hardliners, welcomed by the pragmatic conservatives. Furthermore, the clerics as a class are under pressure from all sides, hardliners, reformers and (small and weak) outright pro-Western liberals alike:
Because he is the first Iranian president who is not also a cleric, Ahmadinejad sought to strengthen his position by claiming that his policies were guided by the highly revered and hidden 12th imam of the Shia, the Mahdi. This claim has unnerved the clerics: It undermines their privileged position, not only in the Iranian political system but also in religious terms. The implication of this is that if laypeople have access to the messiah, there is no need for them to rely on clerics — who historically have had tremendous influence among the masses.
Meanwhile, the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is emerging as a powerful player in Iran, currently second only to the clerics. But as the clerical community becomes marred by internal disagreements and the aging ayatollahs who founded the republic anticipate the day when they will be succeeded by a second generation, the IRGC is very likely to emerge as the most powerful force within the state. The ayatollahs have used their religious position to control the ideological force; if they should become weaker, the non-clerical politicians and technocrats will have a tough time dealing with the IRGC.
It should also be pointed out that Ahmadinejad, far from being a driving force, is but a reflection of deeper dynamics at work. Ranj Alaaldin does not imagine President Mousavi would institute any real changes:
Even with Mousavi in power, Iran’s foreign policy would likely be no different than it has been under Ahmadinejad. A 20-year absence from the public eye, coupled with dazzling words of change that skillfully capitalize on the “Obama effect” gripping the world, does wonders to beguile a young generation of supporters who never knew or have forgotten the radicalism and bloodshed that marked Mousavi’s tenure as prime minister from 1981 to 1989 (the Iranian Revolution’s most significant years).
Indeed, anyone believing Mousavi would be the one to unclench the Iranian fist for a hand-in-hand partnership of peace with the United States is guilty of wishful thinking. It was Mousavi, after all, who was at the center of the Iran hostage crisis and remains complicit in an operation he commended as “the beginning of the second stage of our revolution.” And it was Mousavi who was the protégé of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (chief architect of the Iranian Revolution and founder of theocratic Iran), a former member of Hezbollah’s leadership council, sworn enemy of Israel, and a prime minister under whose watch thousands of political prisoners were massacred in 1988. And finally, it was Mousavi who initiated Iran’s nuclear program in the 1980s and likely would be intent on carrying through Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the foremost issue central to any improvement in relations with the West.
All of this discussion assumes that it is even worth debating whether Mousavi would bring change to Iranian foreign policy when he would have no authority to do so in the first place. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say on matters of foreign policy, not the president. Given Khamenei’s clear approval of what he called a “glittering” Ahmadinejad victory, and because it is the theocracy that verifies the count in the absence of any outside monitors — meaning that any election rigging was done with the supreme leader’s backing — it is he who will need convincing if Iran is to divert from a path of nuclear capability, hostility toward the United States, and support for terrorism.
(It should be noted that Rafsanjani does not refrain from using extreme language either.)
However, he pins hope on the “tenacious middle-class, educated, and youthful Mousavi supporters who have cried foul and rallied and bled in the streets” to force the theocrats to bring about real change. Though overall he’s pessimistic…
More likely, however, the unelected mullahs who rule Iran behind the scenes will be concerned about a galvanized army of reformists who have undermined its authority in recent weeks by, for example, entering the squares and openly mixing and dancing in groups of males and females in direct contravention of clerical law. The leadership might therefore double down on its hard-line foreign and domestic policies, starting with a ruthless endeavor to keep Ahmadinejad in power through any means necessary, so long as the end remains a theocratic Iran.
Returning to the aforementioned poll from Terror Free Tomorrow, 77% of Iranians want all leaders, including the Supreme Leader, to be elected, and similar percentages welcome Western investment and humanitarian aid to Iran (who wouldn’t?). Some 83% strongly favor nuclear energy – that’s OK, nuclear power is a great idea, especially for Iran since it could then export more of its hydrocarbons. Besides, big majorities would acquiesce to inspections of nuclear facilities if accompanied by trade liberalization. Support for cooperation with the US, like stopping funding insurgents in Iraq and to Hizbullah and Hamas, is also very considerable.
These positive attitudes aren’t extended to Israel, however. Though 27% support recognizing Israel if a Palestinian state is established, another 62% would oppose any peace treaty with Israel and favor all Muslims fighting on until there is no State of Israel in the Middle East. And although Christians are almost as popular as Sunni Muslims, opinions on Jews are split in half, with 40% having a positive attitude and a stunning 32% having a negative one.
So now we move onto our last analysis – what’s going to happen in the region?
Iran is split into three social groups. The main one, which is further growing in power, is the hardline element that embraces pursuit of regional hegemony, nuclear weapons and confrontation with the West. It’s main protagonists are Ahmadinejad, the IRGC, and the hardline clerics. Khamenei is increasingly tilting in this direction, the latest evidence for which is his condemnation of Obama’s palm leaf extending Cairo speech.
The second one is that of the old-school clerics, fiery revolutionaries when younger, now willing to reach an accommodation with the US while enjoying the finer things in life. Though some parts of this grouping have become discredited, there is wide grassroots support for reformers who want to make the system more democratic.
The third group are the pro-Western liberals, who are and will almost certainly remain marginal – though they are sure to continue getting the best exposure in the Western media.
This election shows that Iran has purposefully chosen the path of confrontation. There will be a purge of the pragmatic conservative and reformist clerics and, buoyed by increasing oil prices, Iran will accelerate nuclear development, intensify its rhetoric and perhaps increase its funding of terrorist and insurgent groups. Cognizant of its current strength (a still unstable Iraq next door; an excellent demographic profile for war that will fade away as its current fertility rate of 1.7 makes itself felt on the size of future generations; a US Navy for now vulnerable to its asymmetrical developments in drones, torpedoes and anti-ship missiles), the hardliners are going to use the next few years to try to establish Iran as a regional hegemon.
This will not ultimately be acceptable to the US – though it can abandon Israel, it cannot abandon the Middle Eastern oilfields. Yet paradoxically, the election of Ahmadinejad has been a boon for Israel – a symbolic victory that underlines the rising existential threat it faces from Iran, which exists whether or not Ahmadinejad is actually in charge or not.
…Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said that there is not much to be expected from Mousavi. Israeli Mossad chief Meir Dagan told the Knesset that if Mousavi had won, Israel would have had a more serious problem trying to make a case to the world about the threat from Iran, because the international community views Mousavi as a moderate.
It is estimated it will take Iran perhaps another four to five years to develop nuclear weapons. During this time, the chances of an Israeli strike will grow; in particular, the US is likely to come around to its way of thinking, particularly if the economic crisis further intensifies and Obama has to give freer rein to hawkish elements with his administration in order to retain his grip on domestic matters. Iran will grow increasingly emboldened and aggressive on once-again soaring oil prices.
Eventually, this might well end in a major aero-naval assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities (a few strikes won’t do given that the facilities are dispersed and hardened, unlike Osirak in Iraq in 1981) carried out by Israeli with passive or even active US support. The moderate Arab states will condemn this, but will secretly be very happy. Iran retaliates by again destabilizing the fragile foundations underlying the recent peace in Iraq, intensifies support to Hamas and Hizbullah and perhaps attacking US military bases and oil export terminals in the region; with the international situation spiraling out of control, Syria may even make another attempt for the Golan Heights, using the new asymmetrical war concepts displayed by Hizbullah in 2006 into action.
Or Iran’s new Islamist wave may pass by without major consequences. In any case in the long-term a US-Iranian rapprochement is likely. Conflict between Iran and the West prevents the effective exploitation of Iran’s natural gas reserves, which are the world’s joint-second largest (with Qatar) after Russia’s. Given current trends towards the concurrent resurgence of the Russian Empire, it is in the interests of Europe and in extension to US to reach an accomodation with at least one of them. Considering that the Persian Empire is much farther away, less powerful and hence less threatening, Iran is counter-intuitively likely to become the West’s friend within the decade, for the current radicalization now stirring up cannot be sustained in the long-term. Another sea change is that a weakening Israel may seek closer connections to Russia – there is already a visa-free regime between the two countries, and Israel has stopped supplying Georgia with weaponry in acquiescence to Russian wishes.