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No Power to the People

Lack of leadership makes a fully fledged revolution unlikely in Iran

The Diplomat speaks with Ilan Berman, Vice President for Policy at the American Foreign Policy Council and author of ‘Tehran Rising: Iran’s Challenge to the United States’ about Iran’s disputed presidential election.

How credible are the claims that Iran’s presidential election was rigged in favour of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

I think there’s probably quite a bit of foundation in the claims. First of all, because Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement of the Iranian economy over the last four years has been so flagrant that there’s quite a bit of popular resentment on the street, so the fact that he essentially pulled out a win that is almost identical to the one he secured in 2005 doesn’t seem credible.

The second reason for being suspicious is that the poll was essentially a two-way split between Ahmadinejad and his top challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. But there were in fact four candidates – including Mehdi Karoubi, a former parliament speaker, and Mohsen Rezai, a former head of the Revolutionary Guard.  Now Rezai was by all indications a marginal candidate, but Karoubi was not. But the way the polling broke down, both of them received less than one percent of the vote, which didn’t tally with any of the informal polling that had been taking place, and it didn’t take into account the fact that Mousavi and Karoubi have a very strong ethnic identity. Mousavi is an ethnic Azeri and Karoubi is an ethnic Lur. Yet Ahmadinejad far outpolled them in their respective ethnic areas, which just doesn’t seem credible in the grand scheme of Iran’s politics.

How easy would it be for Iranian authorities to rig an election, as has been claimed?

I think it’s very easy. Iran’s structure of power is tilted unmistakably towards the unelected, unaccountable clerical institutions that overlay the secular organisations that we all know – the executive, the legislature, the judiciary. And it is those institutions rather than the secular ones that are the driving force behind domestic and especially foreign and national security policy. So the election seemed pluralistic when voters went to the polls. But it was far more pluralistic back in May when there were more than 400 candidates. That playing field was whittled down to just four because there were the en masse disqualifications by the Guardian Council.
So this is a process that the Iranian clerical elite likes to stage manage and micromanage in a way that creates a predetermined outcome. And this is, frankly, what makes the current protests so remarkable, because it is one of the first times in the last 30 years that we see a public recognition among Iranians of just how jury-rigged their system is.
What do you make of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordering of a probe into the allegations?

It’s certainly a way of letting off some of the tension. But nobody should hope that there’s really going to be a substantively different outcome from the original result, simply because the same institutions that rigged the election the first time are going to be the same ones overseeing the recount. It’s really unfathomable to think that Iran’s clerical leaders are going to do something that will adversely affect them in the long term – the system’s simply not set up that way. If you wanted to use an analogy, the Islamic Republic is like Las Vegas, and the house always wins.

What do you think of the international response so far?

The silence so far has been deafening. There’s been strong condemnation from a few places, such as Italy and Canada, but not such a strong outpouring of any particular sentiment from Washington. And the reason for that is the Obama administration has already laid down its cards, and President Obama has made it clear that he wants to engage with the Iranian regime, rather than with the Iranian people.

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And so Obama is in the worst of all possible worlds here, because if he throws his weight behind the regime like he has before, and the regime does fall, it really disadvantages the US in interacting with Iran in the future. But if he supports the opposition and the regime consolidates power, they are much less likely to talk to him. And that’s why you’re seeing a lot of policy inertia coming from Washington.

Frankly, there’s a lot more we could say. The smart thing to do is always to follow the will of the people, and the will of the people here clearly has diverged from that of the clerical regime. The US government has a responsibility to make clear to the Iranian regime that where it stands in the international community – and in its relations with the United States – has a great deal to do with the way it responds to the current crisis. If it responds humanely, pluralistically and transparently, then things can be worked on in terms of bilateral relations. But if it responds the way it is now, with riot squads, shock troops, in a typically totalitarian fashion, then it is going to be very difficult to move beyond this, even with a president who’s predisposed to do so.

You mentioned the possibility of the regime falling. How likely is that in the short to medium term?

Any answer on this clearly has to be predicated on the understanding that revolutions are notoriously hard to predict. Almost nobody saw the fall of the Soviet Union, and I think we run a similar risk with Iran – not giving it enough weight, or maybe giving it too much weight.

There are two drivers in terms of any prerevolutionary stirrings. The first is leadership. At the moment there’s no real leadership for the movement; these are just people coming out as individuals to rally on behalf of political change – incremental political change, not fundamental political change. But there’s no one leader who’s pulling together these factions and bringing them together in terms of a coherent ideology. If that does not happen it’s hard to see how Iran can change, even incrementally, in terms of government, because even if Iran’s ayatollahs wanted to hand over power, it is not clear who they would hand over power to. So that is one metric to watch.

The other is the security forces: the Revolutionary Guard, which is Iran’s clerical army, and their domestic counterpart, the Basij. These are the guys with the guns, and in authoritarian regimes the guys with the guns matter a great deal. If you start to see a fragmentation of the political base in those organisations, if they are no longer willing to go out and enforce the edicts of the regime and beat and shoot the protesters, then you may have something. But if these agents of the clerical regime remain loyal, then it is unclear to me how decisively the current groundswell of public opinion is going to impact the political scene.

Assuming Ahmadinejad does manage to retain and consolidate power, will this week’s events have given him any pause for thought on some of his harder line policies?

Ahmadinejad has said he will be even ‘more solid’ in his second term. This suggests he is not at all chastened by this experience – he has a sense of entitlement, he has gotten the endorsement of the Supreme Leader, and feels he is not accountable to the Iranian people. When it comes to Ahmadinejad, his focus has always been on national security issues – the nuclear issue, for example. And I don’t see that changing.

What is happening today has very little to do with the nuclear programme, which still remains a popular initiative on the part of the regime. So in terms of things that matter to the West – support for terrorism, nuclear weapons – there is very little sign the current unrest is going to change very much, unless it ends up creating a fundamental transformation of the government from the ground up.