In Part One, see here (or, for those who prefer to use YouTube, here), we talk about our “rough transition” from being insiders to being sharp critics of America’s Middle East policy, especially vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran. We also explain why the end of the Cold War (coinciding, of course, with prosecution of the first Persian Gulf War) was such an important turning point in America’s posture toward the Middle East and Iran.
In Part Two, see here (or, for those who prefer YouTube, here), we explore what’s wrong with American “conventional wisdom” on Iran and what drives U.S. policy on the Iranian nuclear issue. We also discuss how America’s determined but quixotic pursuit of hegemony over the Middle East means that Washington can’t abide independent power centers—whether that was Nasser’s Egypt during the 1950s and 1960s or the Islamic Republic of Iran today.
In the wake of Hassan Rohani’s election as the Islamic Republic’s next president, some Western commentators have argued that Rohani’s election is a manifestation of popular antipathy toward various aspects of Iranian foreign policy, including Tehran’s strategy toward Syria. This reading reflects both an inaccurate interpretation of the results in the Islamic Republic’s June 14 presidential election and a deep misunderstanding of its Syria policy.
As Kayhan Barzegar explains in his most recent—and, as usual, succinctly insightful—article, see here, Iran’s Syria strategy, across “the different pragmatic, Reformist and Principalist governments of Rafsanjani, Khatami and Ahmadinejad,” is a function of perceived threats to Iranian interests and security. And, as our colleague, Seyed Mohammad Marandi, recounts in a discussion of Iran’s presidential election and its implications on China Radio International, listen here, president-elect Hassan Rohani himself said in one of the candidate debates that, under his presidency, Iranian policy toward Syria would not change. (The other panelists on the CRI program are Flynt and Ambassador Hua Liming, China’s former ambassador to the Islamic Republic; Mohammad’s remarks on Syria start at 45:05.)
Since the start of the current Syrian conflict, Tehran has been focused on two such threats—in Kayhan’s words, a “military threat from the United States and Israel,” and a “threat from local rivals” seeking to minimize Iran’s regional role. As Kayhan elaborates:
“The direct threat came from the United States and its Western allies when they made regime change in Syria a starting point to weakening Iran’s regional role, its nuclear stance and perhaps regime change in Iran. Iran’s regional rivals also saw an opportunity in the Syrian crisis to weaken its position in the region. The challenge has come not only from traditional rival Saudi Arabia, but also Qatar and Turkey, once a friendly state, as both took the opportunity to contend with Iranian influence. Together, the three states have formed a bloc to minimize Iran’s regional role. Therefore, Iran had no choice but to react or give ground on its traditional influence to its rivals.”
In contrast to current U.S. policy, though, Iranian strategy allows for—indeed, ascribes high priority to—serious diplomacy, conflict resolution, and a cooperative approach to regional security. As Kayhan underscores,
“It is interesting to observe how the US and the West, just like in Iraq and Afghanistan, lost Iran’s influential role in solving the Syrian crisis at the onset. By minimizing Iran’s role in the Syrian developments and calling Iran part of the crisis in the country, the US marginalized the moderate voices inside Iran that sought meaningful changes and reform by the Assad regime. This provided the ground for the military-security elites to justify calling Syrian regime change an immediate threat to Iran’s national interests and security, subsequently shaping Iran’s Syria policy.
Unlike countries [such as] Egypt and Syria, which shape and conduct their political-security strategies based on their defeats in wars with Israel and losing land such as the Golan Heights, a great part of Iran’s active presence in the region aims to pre-empt future threats and keep its alliance with friendly states and political factions. Experience shows that in an interactive atmosphere and in the course of negotiations, Iran becomes more accommodating and constructive in settling a regional crisis. While Iran cooperated with the United States in establishing the new Afghanistan in the Bonn conference in 2001, it strongly opposed US regional policy when its national security was endangered by aggressive American calls for regime change after the victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. Therefore, the degree of change in Iran’s regional policy directly depends on the actual and perceived threats that Iran sees from Washington and its allies in the region.”
Similarly, Seyed Mohammad notes that, by supporting violent jihadis and a “push for civil war” in Syria, in an attempt “to weaken Iran,” the United States and its European and regional partners are “creating a very dangerous situation, and this has become a threat to the whole world.” By contrast, Iran’s Syria policy is rooted in an assessment (shared by Dr. Rohani) that Assad has “the support of the general population” in Syria, and therefore “must remain in power until elections are held” in 2014. At that point, “free and fair elections, with the presence of foreign monitors, can take place…Whoever is elected in 2014 could then lead the country.”
From Tehran’s perspective, the United States, Britain, and France “simply do not want the issue, the civil war in Syria, to come to an end.” But, with the Syrian government’s recent gains on the battlefield and the growing prominence of al-Qa’ida-like jihadis on the opposition side, “some countries in the region are beginning to rethink their policy on Syria.” And some countries—like Turkey—are “under pressure” because of their Syria policy. So, perhaps Dr. Rohani’s accession to the Islamic Republic’s presidency “would be an excuse for the Saudis and the Qataris to think of some sort of negotiated settlement with Iran…If the Saudis begin to reconsider their support for al-Qa’ida, and jabhat an-Nusra, and other extremist forces, then there is good potential” for constructive diplomacy between regional states now supporting the rebels and Tehran.
And, if the United States and its European partners persist in their destructive policies toward Syria, Iran and its partners, including Hizballah, calculate that they can ultimately turn this to their advantage, too. With regard to Hizballah, we have just returned from a visit to Beirut. As Hillary explains on Al Jazeera, Hizballah is well aware (as are Iranian officials) that supporting the Assad government has cost both it and the Islamic Republic some of the enormous standing they had built up over the last decade or so with Sunni Arab publics—especially as Saudi Arabia and other actors on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf assiduously pursue “a targeted campaign” to cast the Syrian conflict in sectarian terms. But Hizballah and Iran both calculate that, at the end of the day, “the sectarian issue will die on the altar of Israel and the United States,” with “people eventually realizing that this is all about [American and Israeli] dominance and hegemony.”
Given the Obama administration’s course, it may not take Middle Easterners that long to realize that America’s Syria policy is, indeed, all about dominance and hegemony.
Last week, Hillary Mann Leverett told Al Jazeera’s Inside Story, see here, that the Obama administration’s recent decision to begin providing direct military aid to Syrian rebels is “a signal to the rest of the world, particularly to…those who are looking to deal with Syria politically, in a negotiated way, that the United States is not serious about that. The United States is much more serious about ensuring a continued quagmire in Syria, to keep both the Assad government and the rebels essentially fighting each other so that they’re not looking at the United States or Israel in the region”—and, of course, to weaken Iran.
The Obama administration’s lack of seriousness about a political resolution to the Syrian conflict was plain for the world to see at the G8 summit that concluded yesterday in Northern Ireland. To be sure, attendees agreed on a vaguely-worded seven-point plan to address the conflict, including creation of a “transitional governing body” for Syria. They also called for convening a Syria peace conference “as soon as possible.”
The plan noted, though, that a transitional governing body would be “formed by mutual consent”—a sign that ongoing disagreements over the place of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government in a political process to resolve the conflict had blocked consensus on how a “transitional governing body” should be put together. And those disagreements are driven by the insistence of the Obama administration, along with its British and French collaborators, on using a political process to effect regime change in Damascus. As Flynt explained on Al Jazeera last month,
“Hillary and I have been saying for more than two years now, from the get go, that U.S. support for the Syrian opposition was about two things. One was to use the opposition to bring down the Assad government, to (in their calculation) damage Iran’s regional position. Secondly, it was about coopting the Arab Awakening: to show that after the loss of pro-Western regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, a near-miss in Bahrain, that it wasn’t just authoritarian regimes that subordinated their foreign policies to the United States that were at risk from the Arab Awakening—that you could also bring down a regime that had a clear commitment to foreign policy independence…
“Iran, Russia, and other players that have, in popular parlance, been supporting the Assad government have been clear, from very early in this conflict, that they see a political settlement as the only way out of this. What they have said all along, though, is that they will not let the United States dictate not just pre-conditions for a political settlement, but in effect ‘pre-results,’ by requiring at the beginning that Assad go.”
In an interview with Charlie Rose before the G8 summit, President Obama stuck to this foolish posture, talking about the imperative of a “political transition” in Syria, not about a genuine political settlement.
And so, at the summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin once again had to make clear that Moscow would not support terms of reference for a Syrian peace conference requiring that Assad leave office. Likewise, Putin had to reiterate that, from Russia’s perspective, all parties participating in a conference—including the Syrian government—should be free to choose their own delegations. In Kuwait, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov amplified Moscow’s position: “We are categorically against…assertions that the conference should be some kind of public act of capitulation by the government delegation followed by a handing over of power to the opposition.”
After Secretary of State John Kerry’s discussions with Lavrov in Moscow last month, the Obama administration had professed interest in convening a Syria peace conference in June. This was postponed to July, precisely because of the Obama administration’s arrogant insistence on getting everything it wants, up front—and in a manner maximally damaging to the interests of not just the Syrian government, but also of Russia, China, and Iran—before a political process can start. Now, The Guardianreports, “Sources said it was now unlikely that a peace conference would take place in July, since the Russian president could not agree with the other G8 leaders on the terms of a post-Assad cabinet.”
As diplomatic prospects fade, attention focuses on the Obama administration’s decision to “ramp up” (Obama’s phrase with Charlie Rose) U.S. support for oppositionists. Publicly, the administration justified this with a purported assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies that Syrian government forces have used chemical weapons against rebel fighters. But, as Hillary noted on CCTV’s BizAsia America last week, see here,
“The White House has given us nothing to scrutinize here. Remember the use of manufactured evidence of Iraq’s WMD—chemical weapons, the same thing we’re talking about here—to justify an invasion of Iraq in 2003. After the fact, of course, nothing was found, noting was there. After that experience, it would behoove all of us to be very careful and to scrutinize whatever we’re allowed to see. But the White House, so far, hasn’t let us see any of the so-called evidence.”
As Hillary laid out on both Al Jazeera and CCTV, the real reason for deciding the “ramp up” U.S. military support to the rebels—as White House officials themselves acknowledge—is not the purported use of chemical weapons. Rather, it’s the decisive difference that Hizballah’s engagement is making on the battlefield, which has fueled concern in the White House and other parts of official Washington that Hizballah and Iran—and, by extension, Russia and China—can’t be allowed to “win” in Syria.
So, at this point, the Obama administration’s objective in supporting the rebels is less about overthrowing Assad—for, as both Flynt and Hillary point out, this project has failed. Moreover, as Hillary notes on Al Jazeera, “[T]he weapons that they’re talking about giving are not going to do anything decisive, strategically, on the ground.” So what is the objective? Hillary explains:
“The long-term plan—you’ve been hearing it increasingly from neoconservative voices, from pro-Israel voices here in Washington—is to keep a quagmire in Syria. Do not allow Assad to win, under any circumstance, because an Assad victory is an Iranian victory, a Chinese victory, a Russian victory—and a real defeat for the United States. So I think this is about keeping the parties fighting each other in Syria, so they’re not challenging U.S. dominance in the region…
The aim here, again, is not to overthrow Assad. We [the United States] gave up on that. For two years we’ve been trying it. We have given up on that—and particularly with the insertion of Hizballah, there’s been a strategic turn with the taking of Qusayr. I think at this point it’s almost ‘game over,’ and we’re just trying to keep the people fighting so we don’t have to accept defeat.”
Of course, keeping people fighting in this way will, in Hillary’s words, “just lead to more and more dead Syrians, and essentially we’ll have to come back to the negotiating table, with the opposition even weaker, having even further collapsed.” But, for the White House, those additional dead Syrians will have helped keep John McCain and Marco Rubio at bay, so that if parts of the opposition accept a deal with the Assad government before the end of Obama’s presidency, it will be harder for Republican critics to score points against him.
For those thinking this an overly cynical interpretation, recall Obama’s “decision-making” on Afghanistan. During his first year in office, Obama acceded to Pentagon requests for additional U.S. forces in Afghanistan—even though, by Obama’s own assessment, this would lead only to more dead Afghans and more dead American soldiers. But, by sacrificing those Afghans and Americans, Obama hamstrung McCain and other GOP critics, to a point where, as Obama now reverses course and draws down U.S. forces in Afghanistan, his critics are reduced to nattering about the imprudence of pulling out on a publicly announced timetable. Strategically and morally, this is a pathetic way for the United States to run its foreign policy—but it is Obama’s way, and his administration is now pursuing it in Syria.
In the wake of Hassan Rohani’s victory in Iran’s presidential election, we offered a roadmap for genuinely constructive U.S. engagement with Tehran in an Op-Ed published in The Hindu (India’s third-largest English-language daily), see here, and, in revised form, in Huffington Post, see here. As always, we encourage readers to leave comments on these sites as well as here. We also append our piece below.
What Rohani’s Election Should Mean for Washington
Friday’s presidential and local council elections in Iran show that the Islamic Republic is far more stable and politically dynamic than Western conventional wisdom commonly acknowledges. Moreover, the election of Hassan Rohani—who headed the Islamic Republic’s Supreme National Security Council for sixteen years and was Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator with the West for much of that period—presents Washington with an opportunity, for Rohani understands the U.S.-Iranian diplomatic agenda in an existential, granular way. If, though, the Obama administration wants to engage a new Rohani administration effectively, and to put U.S.-Iranian relations on a more positive trajectory, it will need to overhaul U.S. policy in four fundamental ways:
First, Washington must accept the Islamic Republic as an enduring political entity representing legitimate national interests. Virtually since the Islamic Republic’s creation out of the Iranian Revolution, American elites have declared it is an illegitimate order, so dysfunctional and despised by its own population as to be at imminent risk of overthrow.
In reality, the Islamic Republic is a legitimate order for most Iranians living in Iran. Its animating idea—the ongoing project of integrating Islamist governance and participatory politics—appeals not just in Iran, but to Muslim societies across the Middle East. Despite decades of military, clandestine, and international economic pressure, it has achieved more progressive developmental outcomes—e.g., in alleviating poverty, delivering health care, expanding educational access, and (yes) improving opportunities for women—than the Shah’s regime ever did, and has done better in these areas than its neighbors (including U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey).
The election of Rohani, a moderate conservative, hardly signifies a fundamental challenge to the Islamic Republic (despite the wishful thinking of some who overestimated the Green movement’s significance four years ago). On the same day that Rohani won the presidency, conservatives took 70 percent of the more than 200,000 local council seats up for grabs across Iran.
In short, the Islamic Republic isn’t going anywhere. Even among Iranians who want the Islamic Republic to evolve significantly, most of them still want it to be, at the end of the day, an Islamic Republic of Iran.
Washington needs to accept this reality if it wants to negotiate productively with Tehran. Among other things, acceptance would mean calling off the “dirtywar” America is conducting against the Islamic Republic—including economic warfare against civilians, threatening secondary sanctions against third countries in violation of U.S. WTO commitments, cyber-attacks, and support for groups doing things inside Iran that Washington elsewhere condemns as “terrorism.”
When President Richard Nixon took office in 1969, believing it was strategically vital for America to realign relations with the People’s Republic of China, he ordered the CIA to stand down from covert operations in Tibet, and ordered the Seventh Fleet to stop aggressive patrolling in the Taiwan Strait. Nixon did these things so that when he reached out diplomatically to the Chinese leadership, they would know he was serious.
The Iranian leadership needs to see comparable steps from President Obama, rather than the farce of Obama’s “dual track” policy, whereby Iran is threatened with the “stick” of open-ended intensification in America’s dirty war if it won’t surrender its internationally-safeguarded nuclear program for the “carrot” of perhaps being allowed to buy airplane spare parts from the West.
Second, Washington must deal with the Islamic Republic as a system, and stop trying to play Iran’s public against its government. On a positive note, the White House press statement about the Iranian presidential election refers to Iran by its official name—“Islamic Republic,” something the Obama administration has refused to do since 2009. But the statement does not congratulate Rohani; it congratulates the Iranian people “for their participation in the political process, and their courage in making their voices heard…against the backdrop of a lack of transparency, censorship of the media, Internet, and text messages, and an intimidating security environment.” Such a posture will not facilitate productive diplomacy afterf Rohani takes office.
Similarly, Washington should stop looking for Iranian “moderates” who, by U.S. definition, are moderate only because American officials believe they might be willing to subordinate some of Iran’s sovereign prerogatives for more economic ties to the West. The Clinton administration tried working around Ayatollah Khamenei and dealing only with reformist President Mohammad Khatami during Khatami’s first term. A decade later, the Obama administration tried working around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and dealing directly with Khamenei. Every time, the tactic fails—and will fail again if Obama repeats it on a newly inaugurated President Rohani.
The Islamic Republic was designed to encompass multiple, competitive power centers—e.g., the Supreme Leader, the presidency, parliament. As Leader, Khamenei has allowed three presidents—Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, and Ahmadinejad—to pursue very different, self-defined agendas, but has also restrained them when he judged their agendas might weaken the Islamic Republic’s identity and long-term security. Khamenei’s relationship with President Rohani is likely to play out in similar fashion.
Washington does not help its cause by trying to manipulate one power center against another. In Tehran, deciding to realign relations with America will take a consensus—a consensus encompassing both Leader and President.
Third, Washington must recognize Iran’s legalright, as a sovereign state and as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to enrich uranium under international safeguards. As we wrote lastmonth, “If Washington recognized Iran’s right to enrich, a nuclear deal with Tehran could be reached in a matter of weeks”; but “as long as Washington refuses to acknowledge Tehran’s nuclear rights, no substantial agreement will be possible.” This will be no less true under President Rohani than it has been previously.
There is a strong consensus in Iran—cutting across the factional spectrum, ratified by Ayatollah Khamenei, and supported by public opinion—that the Islamic Republic should not surrender its nuclear rights. In this year’s election campaign, Rohani was criticized for his approach to nuclear diplomacy with the West; in 2003-2005, during Rohani’s tenure as nuclear negotiator, Tehran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment for nearly two years, and got nothing from the West in return. Rohani—who holds advanced degrees in both Islamic law and civil law—vigorously defended his record, arguing that his approach helped Iran avoid sanctions while laying the ground for subsequent expansion of its enrichment infrastructure. Looking forward, he explicitly committed himself to defending the Islamic Republic’s right to enrich. There will be no nuclear deal absent U.S. acknowledgement of that right.
Fourth, Washington must stop cooperating with Saudi Arabia and others to spread violent, al-Qa’ida-like Sunni extremism across the Middle East as part of an ill-conceived strategy for containing Iran. This strategy is currently on display in Syria, where, from the onset of unrest in 2011, the Obama administration has sought to use an opposition increasingly manned and supported by foreigners to overthrow the Assad government and damage Tehran’s position. The administration is now stepping up support for the opposition—saying explicitly this is intended to prevent Tehran and its allies from “winning” in Syria.
The Islamic Republic has demonstrated that it can be a constructive partner in fighting the spread of violent Sunni extremism. By escalating the conflict in Syria, Washington will, first of all, enable the deaths of tens of thousands more Syrians; it will also—as it has done before (e.g., in Afghanistan and Libya)—incubate a long-term security threat to itself and to all countries with an interest in Middle Eastern stability. The only way out of the Syrian conflict is serious diplomacy that facilitates a political settlement between the Assad government and its opponents. Iran is critical to achieving this.
If Washington really wants better relations with Tehran following Rohani’s election, the course is clear.
Please click on the embedded video here or above to hear Hillary Mann Leverett on CNN on the election of Hassan Rouhani as President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and see the analysis below written by Flynt Leverett, Hillary Mann Leverett and Seyed Mohammad Marandi, originally published by Al Jazeera, linked and pasted below:
Rouhani Won the Iranian Election. Get Over it.**
By Flynt Leverett, Hillary Mann Leverett, and Seyed Mohammad Marandi
The United States’ perennially mistaken Iran “experts” are already spinning Hassan Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s presidential election as a clear proof of the Islamic Republic’s ongoing implosion. In fact, Rouhani’s success sends a very different message: it is well past time for the US to come to terms with the reality of a stable and politically dynamic Islamic Republic of Iran.
By contrast, we held that Iran was “in the final days of a real contest”, during which candidates had “broad and regular access to national media”, had “advertised and held campaign events”, and had “participated in three nationally televised (and widely watched) debates”. The election “will surprise America’s so-called Iran ‘experts’,” we wrote, for the winner will emerge “because he earned the requisite degree of electoral support, not because he was ‘annointed'”.
The real contest
Rouhani’s victory demonstrates that the election was a real contest, and that the perceived quality of candidates’ campaigns mattered greatly in many Iranians’ decisions for whom to vote. In the end, most Iranians seemed to believe – and acted as if they believed – that they had a meaningful choice to make. Besides the presidential ballot, Iranians voted for more than 200,000 local and municipal council seats – with more than 800,000 candidates standing for those seats – a “detail” never mentioned by those constantly deriding the Islamic Republic’s “dictatorship”.
Certainly, Western “experts” were wrong that former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s disqualification had driven Iranians into a state of political alienation and apathy. Rafsanjani is, at this point, not a popular figure for many Iranians; he almost certainly would have lost had he been on this year’s ballot. Rafsanjani’s sidelining was a necessary condition for the rise of Rouhani, a Rafsanjani protege.
More broadly, Rafsanjani’s dream has been to build a pragmatic centre in Iranian politics, eschewing “extremes” of both conservatives – or “principlists”, as they are called in Iran – and reformists. Instead, he has antagonised both camps without creating an enduring constituency committed to a centrist vision.
The election of Rouhani – the only cleric on the ballot, who campaigned against “extremism” in all forms and was endorsed by Rafsanjani – may contribute more to realising Rafsanjani’s dream than another unsuccessful Rafsanjani presidential bid.
Going into the campaign, Rouhani’s biggest weakness was foreign policy; in 2003-05, during Rouhani’s tenure as chief nuclear negotiator, Tehran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment for nearly two years, but got nothing from Western powers in return. In fact, criticism of Rouhani’s negotiating approach was an important factor in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first election to the presidency in 2005.
During this year’s campaign, Rouhani effectively addressed this potential vulnerability, arguing that his approach allowed Iran to avoid sanctions while laying the ground for the subsequent development in its nuclear infrastructure. Moreover, Rouhani’s campaign video included praise from armed forces chief of staff General Seyed Hassan Firouzabadi, which bolstered Rouhani’s perceived credibility on security issues.
In the week between the third candidates’ debate – on foreign policy – and election day, polls showed with accumulating clarity that Rouhani was building the strongest momentum of any candidate, along with Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf – who came in second, and whom we flagged two days before the vote as a likely contender with Rouhani in a second-round runoff.
By election day, polls showed Rouhani pulling ahead of Qalibaf and his other opponents – a sharp contrast to Iran’s 2009 presidential election, when no methodologically sound poll ever showed former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi ahead of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Key to Rouhani’s success was his ability to forge coalitions, especially with reformists. Rouhani is not himself a reformist. He belongs to the Society of Combatant Clergy, the conservative antipode to the Assembly of Combatant Clerics founded by Mohammad Khatami – who became Iran’s first reformist president in 1997 – and other reform-minded clerics. Overall, Rouhani’s share of the vote was higher in small towns and villages, where people are more conservative, than in larger cities – largely because he is a cleric.
The real reformist on this year’s ballot was Mohammad Reza Aref, who served as Khatami’s first vice-president. Aref, however, proved a lacklustre candidate and attracted little popular support. Other reformists pressed him to quit after the final candidates’ debate, which freed Khatami to endorse Rouhani. While reformists were not the core of Rouhani’s electoral base, their votes were crucial to getting him over the 50 percent threshold.
Iran’s 2013 presidential election also confirms a point wehavebeenmaking for four years – that, contrary to Western conventional wisdom, no hard evidence has been put forward showing that Iran’s 2009 presidential election, when Ahmadinejad won re-election over Mousavi and two other opponents, was “stolen”.
No post-election gatherings
Even so, Iran’s political system adopted last year a law creating an election commission to oversee and certify the Interior Ministry’s conduct of the 2013 election. This and other systemic responses to potential or real abuse – such as the closure of the Kahrizak Detention Centre where cases of police brutality were reported after the 2009 election – demonstrate the Islamic Republic’s capacity to reform itself.
Pointing this out in the West prompts slanderous accusations of murderous appeasement – but those who make such accusations are consistently proven wrong, as Iranian politics regularly defies their cartoonish and derogatory stereotypes.
The biggest difference from 2009 is the behaviour of the candidates themselves. This year, all of the candidates agreed not to hold post-election gatherings or make statements about the outcome until all votes were counted and final results officially announced. They stuck to this agreement as the Interior Ministry periodically announced partial results coming in from polling stations across Iran. Despite the fact that president-elect Rouhani won by just 261,251 votes over the 50 percent threshold, his rivals immediately issued messages of congratulations, as did Ayatollah Khamenei.
Compare that with 2009, when – while polls were still open and no votes had been counted – Mousavi declared to have official “information” that he had won “by a substantial margin”. This set the stage for him to claim fraud and call supporters into the streets to protest, giving birth to the Green Movement. When Mousavi failed to back up his charge of fraud with a shred of hard evidence, the Greens’ popular base shrank dramatically – because they were no longer challenging a particular election outcome, but the very idea of the Islamic Republic as a political system.
Notwithstanding the Greens’ failure, the movement has ever since been a primary vessel for the fantasies of Iranian expatriates, pro-Israel advocates and Western interventionists – that Western-style secular democracy would replace participatory Islamist governance in Iran.
But reformists and their centrist allies – who support the Islamic Republic, even if their visions for its future differ from those of Iranian principlists – distanced themselves from the Green Movement. This enabled them to regroup and to learn lessons from the 2009 election, from Rafsanjani’s presidential defeat in 2005, and from Khatami’s setbacks during his presidency that proved crucial to Rouhani’s electoral success this year.
The United States and the West need to get over the pernicious wishful thinking that the Islamic Republic is not an enduring and legitimate system for Iranians living in their country. And the Islamic Republic’s core features of participatory Islamist governance and foreign policy independence have broad appeal not just in Iran, but for hundreds of millions of Muslims across the Middle East. It’s time for the US to come to terms with that reality.