Is Iran's Election America's Problem?

The closely watched Iranian election campaign came to a close over the weekend on what was probably the least-likely of possible outcomes: a decisive win for incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad apparently driven by widespread fraud. Subsequently, protests and riots broke out in the streets, met in turn by a closing of ranks in the regime and a crackdown by security forces.

As the voting unfolded, the natural impulse was to view the election through the lens of American foreign policy. In turn, it seemed important to observe that Iranian politics has a logic of its own and that in Iran, as in most countries, pedestrian concerns about the quality of life dominate most elections. The most important issue in the Iranian campaign was identical to the most important issue in every country around the world for the past year -- the devastating global recession.

Indeed, the campaign itself didn't have very clear implications for U.S. policy. Ahmadinejad is in most ways a classic right-winger, a demagogic nationalist and cultural conservative. In a manner somewhat reminiscent of a Sarah Palin, however, he clothes this right-wing politics in a language of class resentment, painting his more pragmatic and reformist opponents as decadent elites out of touch with ordinary people. Unlike the populists of the American right, however, he merges this rhetoric with something resembling an actual populist economic agenda. The main element has been the use of oil revenue to expand the state sector of the economy in an attempt to distribute wealth more broadly throughout the country. This approach has gained Ahmadinejad a loyal following among the rural poor and public employees, but Iran's objective economic performance has been disappointing, even during the great oil boom years. Increasing swaths of elite opinion in Iran now support substantial economic reform even as the clerical establishment worries that freer markets would undermine their quasi-dictatorship.

On the other side was the main opposition candidate, Mir Hussein Mousavi. As a former prime minister from the days of the Iran-Iraq War, he's not exactly an outsider. But he is a reformist, and most reformist thinkers and groups have rallied to his standard over the past several months, deeming him the most realistic candidate to beat Ahmadinejad and someone with enough inside knowledge and clout that he could, unlike his reformist predecessor Mohammed Khatami, actually be an effective president and enact reform rather than merely symbolizing it.

Initially, the election looked set to be a sleepy affair. No Iranian president has ever failed to be elected to a second term, and reformist forces entered the campaign season demoralized. But Moussavi proved to be a surprisingly innovative campaigner, breaking with tradition to appear on the stump with his wife and deliberately courting women's votes. Then just a bit over one week ago came a critical dual turning point related to Iran's first-ever televised presidential debate. Feeling the pressure from his rival, Ahmadinejad used his opening statement to offer a blistering and somewhat unhinged attack, arguing that he was the victim of slander from not only Moussavi but also Khatami and another former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who continues to be a key official and member of the Iranian political elite. Mousavi hit back, using the occasion to note that Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial and bluster were undermining Iran's international position.

Rafsanjani hit back with a tough anti-Ahmadinejad letter that appeared to indicate that major elements of the Iranian establishment were tired of the demagogue's approach. It seems, however, the growing movement around Mousavi started spooking the supreme leader and his circle, pushing the powers that be to embrace what amounts to a coup by Ahmadinejad and the security services.

Interestingly, it's not entirely clear that a Mousavi victory would have had important consequences for the viability of a diplomatic reconciliation with Iran. Mousavi campaigned well within the Iranian foreign-policy consensus. He expressed no intention of making nice with Israel, believes Iran should continue to support armed struggle against Israel via Hamas and Hezbollah, believes Iran should be the leading power in the Persian Gulf, and believes that Iran should assert its right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to enrich uranium. The Mousavi platform left the door open to an agreement that would permit Iran to do what Japan, Germany, South Korea, and other countries have done -- fully explore the science of uranium enrichment without constructing any nuclear weapons. But no matter who holds Iran's presidency, the key question around any nuclear deal remains whether or not the supreme leader will go for it.

The theft of the election, however, raises more foreign-policy implications than any clean result could have. For one thing, at this point if Mousavi and his followers somehow manage to prevail, it will be a victory not for a "reform" movement but for something more like a revolution that holds the promise of completely changing the context of U.S.-Iranian relations. Unfortunately, a more likely scenario is that the opposition will be crushed, with uncertain consequences for American policy. Consolidation of power under Ahmadinejad is likely to change the U.S. domestic political context. Already former Bush administration official Elliot Abrams is spinning the theft as a vindication of a hardline approach. On the merits, we ought to see it the other way around. The events of the weekend are a sign of the pro-reform movement's strength, something boosted by Obama's policy. In an optimistic scenario, the regime could react to clear signs of popular discontent by deciding that it's best to retrench its position and try to strike a deal with the U.S. in order to better focus on domestic stability.

Pessimistically, however, it's at least possible that the upshot of these events will be the marginalization of pragmatic figures within the Iranian regime and the rise to power of a group with whom it's not possible to reach an agreement.

For the moment, the most important thing is to do what we can to assist the development of a favorable outcome on the ground. What that amounts to in practice, however, is that there's not very much we can do. Over-the-top rhetoric from the United States is likely to be counterproductive and the Obama administration has been right to follow a restrained approach. Beyond that, whatever the outcome of Iran's domestic political struggles, the fundamental strategic calculus remains the same. Airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities will not accomplish the goal of maintaining a verifiably non-nuclear Iranian military, and an agreement on nuclear issues between the U.S. and Iran would still serve the interests of both countries. Under the circumstances, no matter what the outcome, pursuit of such an arrangement should continue to be a priority. But friends of diplomacy should be realistic that the odds of reaching a deal seem to have gotten much worse.