Europa & die Welt Debattenbeitrag

Iranian Elections: What did the Iranians vote for?

Iran has decided not to change. Not to change its president neither its political discourse. Iran has decided to wait for the next American offer before it freely compromises, because it is still convinced that it has not lost any of its battles in the last four years, especially those concerning the nuclear issue.

The obduracy of the Iranian establishment is a highly incendiary issue that has driven millions of Iranians, young and old, to defy a ban on protest and join mass opposition rallies in Tehran, disputing the announced victory of the hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinajad´s in the recent elections. Tehran has not witnessed such an eruption of violence in the streets since the student strikes of 1999, with fierce clashes between demonstrators and police. It is certainly one of the most powerful protests against the conservative religious establishment in the last 30 years. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khaminai´I, has promised that the Constitutional Council will investigate the election results, but it is highly unlikely that there will be any reversal of the announced outcome. However, some strange events which have occurred in the course of the Iranian elections are worth considering.

From the early hours on election day it appeared that Mousavi, the main Reformist candidate, was in the lead. There was undoubtedly a very close proximity in the levels of support enjoyed by the incumbent president, Ahmadinajad, and his Reformist rival, and it had been broadly assumed that neither would be able to secure the requisite fifty percent of votes needed to win the first round outright. The contest was expected to pass into its second round, where it seemed likely that the votes belonging to a third candidate, the Reformist Mohsin Radai’i, would fall to Ahmadinijad and prevent reformist victory. This second round never took place. Mousavi’s early lead prompted the anxious religious institutions and Revolutionary Guard into action, swiftly rallying their supporters, and extending the voting hours until almost midnight. Ahmadinjad’s victory was declared before all polling stations had even been closed. It seems clear that the religious and military establishments have decided that the battle is too early, and that change is definitely forbidden.

What messages is the Iranian government sending?

This is a message directed at least as much at the United States as it is at those within the country. The ambiguous transfer of power in the US has fanned the flames of Reformism in Iran, and the ruling security and religious establishment was telling the Reformist supporters who filled the streets of Tehran that it knows the national interests of the Iranian nation better than they do, and that it knows how to best preserve those interests in this sensitive period. There will be no softening, towards either the internal or the external opposition.

Prospects for US-Iranian relations

In this clear decision, Iran refused to meet Obama half way. This is because any serious analysis of Obama’s Cairo speech demonstrates that he did not, in fact, add anything substantial to the offers and incentives previously made by the Bush administration. Appearances, however, differed drastically, as Obama articulately promoted the new American openness towards the Islamic World. Maybe some observers in Tehran suspect that Obama has opened up towards Muslim Sunnis much more than towards Muslim Shiites. The sticking-point is obvious: Iran´s nuclear program. Iran sees that the time has not yet come to send a message of openness towards America, or to give away Ahmadinajad who to Iran equals an atomic bomb, before knowing the price that it would receive from the Americans in return.

In a move which may further antagonize those parts of the Iranian establishment already suspicious of Obama’s eloquent if somewhat vacuous words of conciliation, Obama has said that the demonstrations taking place in Tehran have inspired the world. He has asserted the Iranian people´s right to choose their leaders, and sees the situation as troubling. However, whilst Obama has declared that ‘it’s wrong that we remain silent’, he has also stressed that the US respects the sovereignty of Iran. He further added that the US is still determined to have a serious dialogue with Iran.

The Lebanese Link

The Lebanese were closely observing the Iranian elections. The pro-Western 14th of March coalition which won the parliamentary majority on the 7th of June expected their Iranian counter-part to win and their pro-Western influence to spread deep into Iran. On the other hand, it seems fairly undeniable that the Hezbollah-led coalition lost the Lebanese parliamentary elections largely because of Ahmadinajad himself. Hezbollah know that he will remain one of the main threats to their popularity and to their reform programs, which will not go as planned due to the Iranian decision to challenge the US and the West in general from Iran´s power strongholds in the Middle East – of which Lebanon is one.

In the summer of 2006, Lebanon was subject to an Israeli military campaign on the pretext that Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in the south of Lebanon, but which was actually motivated by Iranian refusal of an offer of Western incentives that Iran considered to be humiliating and unjust. This rejection allowed Iran to maintain its internal stability, spread its influence, and transfer the struggle with America to other external fronts in addition to continuing with its nuclear program that now includes more than seven nuclear facilities. The Iranian electoral choice indicates that Iran did not lose its confrontation with the US and it did not find a reason to change the course of its policies. There is therefore certainly no reason to change its main political negotiator. Iran can also be expected to engage in more proxy wars outside its territory, until it achieves its desired deal with the US and the West in general.

The Israeli Link

If Iran continues to pursue such unyielding foreign policy initiatives, the Israeli stance towards Iran will continue to gain more credibility in the West. It would be naïve to think that Lebanon – with all its political factions – might gain from the victory of Ahmadinajad and Iran´s decision to go forward with its confrontational policies. These policies could well give Israel a new reason to attack Lebanon – this time covered and legitimized by the international community – based on the fact that the Americans plan to face Iran using Lebanon as a main battlefield. The coming months will tell whether Iran has become ready to accept the incentives that have been recently offered, or whether it has decided to entrust its president with the task of pushing the US and Israel to the limit. Until then, the international community observes the developments in Iran’s streets with a high degree of concern.