Saturday, June 13, 2009

UPDATED: Iran: Yes, Stealing an election and imposing Ahmadinejad is rather significant

By Barry Rubin

Many Western analysts and journalists are treating the stolen election in Iran as something of little significance for their own policies toward Iran. After all, they say, it is only an internal matter. Why should it affect Western attempts to engage with the Islamist regime?

As the New York Times reported:

"The Obama administration is determined to press on with efforts to engage the Iranian government despite misgivings about irregularities in the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."

If we hadn't been previously conditioned by so many crazy ways to view Middle East politics this alone would be a shocker. True, in international affairs one has to deal with many dictatorships and national interests sometimes require putting aside one's repugnance at repression.

(Though, by the way, are we now going to see efforts at academic boycotts and nonstop human rights' denunciations of Iran in the manner apparently reserved for democratic Israel?).

Let me put it this way. I certainly expected Ahmadinjad to win but figured the regime would play out the game. He'd either genuinely gain victory in the second round or they'd change just enough votes to ensure his victory. What no one expected is that the regime would tear up the whole process like this. Their brazen way of doing so--if you don't like it you can go to hell, we're going to do whatever we want, and we don't care what anyone thinks--signals to me that this ruling group is even more risk-taking and irresponsible than it previously appeared.

This is the key point: the problem with Iran's regime isn't just that it is a dictatorship, it's that it is such an extremist, aggressive dictatorship.

The only logical explanation for why the regime did this is that Ahmadinejad's opponents got so many votes that it frightened the regime. It also shows that the regime is wedded to Ahmadinejad and his approach.

It is common to say that the president is not important and the supreme guide is the true ruler of Iran. (Even President Obama has repeated this briefing point.) Yet this latest event seems to mark some change.

If Ahmadinejad was so indispensable that he was kept as the establishment's candidate despite his international and domestic (mismanagement of economy) negatives, the ruling establishment must really feel that it needs him.

There is a hint here that Ahmadinejad is now being crowned heir, the man designated to secure the regime's future. I don't want to overstate that theory but it is very much worth considering. He does represent their orientation, plans for the future, ambitions, hopes, and beliefs.

Is a regime that just committed itself irrevocably to the most extreme  faction,  most radical ideology, and most repressive control over the country going to compromise with the West on nuclear weapons or anything else?

Of course not, like Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s, Syria's rulers in the 1970s, and Iraq's Saddam Hussein in the 1980s (and many examples elsewhere in the world) it is going to use foreign adventurism and mobilizing hatred against the West and Israel to consolidate its hold on the country.

Remember all those people who've said that Iran can be entrusted with nuclear weapons because the regime was so cautious in practice and its rhetoric should be disregarded?

And there's more. It isn't just a stolen election but the imposition by the ruling group of the most extreme, adventurist, nuclear-weapon waving, Holocaust-denying candidate. I would have been pleased if either of the two less radical candidates had won, not because they are super-moderate but that would have signalled a government less likely to go (or blunder) into war or use nuclear weapons.

Again, though, the significance of events in Tehran is the triumph of both the most extreme elements of the regime and of the advocate of the most far-out policy. Can any sane person think this group--intoxicated in the belief they are winning victories everywhere and will win more in future--is going to compromise with America and Europe?

Remember, too, before taking this step, the regime's leaders calculated they had nothing to lose internationally. What could that mean except that they hadn't planned on making nice with the West in the first place and also that they don't take Western pressure--at a time when there's so much talk of engagement, apology, and appeasement in the air--as a serious threat?

So now are we going to see an all-out effort to conciliate with the Islamist regime which has just signalled its intentions in the clearest possible terms? For goodness sake, is there truly no limit?

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