Saturday, June 13, 2009

Iran's Election: The Lessons are Clear; the Western Response Isn't

By Barry Rubin

There's a lot of confusion over the Iranian election. It appears that the regime has declared Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner and closed down the offices of the two less extreme candidates. We can learn a great deal from this, information that will help a lot of people survive and avert a tragic future for the Middle East region and the world generally. If we learn AND remember.

--Iran is a dictatorship. The pretention of democracy is secondary, despite the large voter turnout. Indeed, the size of the turnout shows that such processes allow people to blow off steam and make the system seem more legitimate rather than capable of change. Remember that reformists won a lot of elections a decade ago and elected a president without being able to change even the tiniest detail of law or policy.

--The ruling establishment wants Ahmadeinejad in power. This was not an easy decision. He does challenge the current generation of powerful political figures. He is aggressive, disruptive, and openly attacks the West and calls for genocide against Israel.

And that's why they want him.

While there are other voices even in the ruling establishment--from Mehdi Karubi at the most domestically reformist end; through Mir-Hosain Musavi offering a kinder, gentler Islamism; through Ali Akbar Rafsanjani as advocate of a less provocative foreign policy--Ahmadinejad does reflect the views of the people in charge. 

In addition, they judge the cost of having the most extreme, provocative, Holocaust-denying, nuclear-weapon waving, aggressive leader as being very low. And that's because they correctly believe that the West has no willpower to fight them. How do you think Tehran reads President Barack Obama and his offers of conciliation?

--This is an extremely ambitious regime. We can talk about its legitimate defensive concerns (as was also said about Hitler's Germany and Stalin's USSR) and yes these things exist. Germany suffered greatly due to the World War One territorial settlement while the USSR feared capitalist encirclement. But the existence of grievances are less important than how they are expressed in policy terms.

Make no mistake. Iran is going for hegemony in the Middle East and the Muslim-majority lands. That's what this regime is about. And just because we think Iran can't do it--as in the case of Germany, the USSR, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq--doesn't mean it won't try with bloody and turbulent results.

--Lots of  people in Iran, probably the majority, are against the regime. This gives us long-term hope and reminds us that Iran as such and its people are not the enemy. But in political and strategic terms, so what? They have no mechanism for overthrowing a government which won't hesitate to repress, torture, and kill them. Remember, it's a dictatorship with a monopoly on force.

--Iran will get nuclear weapons unless Western policy shifts very drastically and will probably get them even if Western policy gets much tougher. The idea that the Islamist regime is just another government and has a "right" to get missiles and warheads that can kill millions may look good in theory but it is insane in practice.

Aside from the chance that it would fire off these weapons--a possibility perhaps low in likelihood but too catastrophic to take lightly--Tehran's possession of them will almost irreversibly change the balance of power in the region toward a tremendously dangerous situation.  And now we know that these weapons will be controlled by an establishment that prefers Ahmadinejad and its extremist (even in Iranian terms) Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Obama said he was awaiting the results of Iran's election before setting his policy toward Iran in motion. We now have the results. He really should draw the proper conclusions from them. Engagement and dialogue will not work with the Tehran regime. What we have here is a great struggle to determine the future of the Middle East.

The West has two options: engage in struggle or engage in fantasy (which includes the fantasy of engagement).

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