If the reports coming out of Tehran about an electoral coup are sustained, then Iran has entered an entirely new phase of its post-revolution history. One characteristic that has always distinguished Iran from the crude dictators in much of the rest of the Middle East was its respect for the voice of the people, even when that voice was saying things that much of the leadership did not want to hear.
In 1997, Iran’s hard line leadership was stunned by the landslide election of Mohammed Khatami, a reformer who promised to bring rule of law and a more human face to the harsh visage of the Iranian revolution. It took the authorities almost a year to recover their composure and to reassert their control through naked force and cynical manipulation of the constitution and legal system. The authorities did not, however, falsify the election results and even permitted a resounding reelection four years later. Instead, they preferred to prevent the President from implementing his reform program.
In 2005, when it appeared that no hard line conservative might survive the first round of the presidential election, there were credible reports of ballot manipulation to insure that Mr. Ahmadinejad could run (and win) against former President Rafsanjani in the second round. The lesson seemed to be that the authorities might shift the results in a close election but they would not reverse a landslide vote.
The current election appears to repudiate both of those rules. The authorities were faced with a credible challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who had the potential to challenge the existing power structure on certain key issues. He ran a surprisingly effective campaign, and his “green wave” began to be seen as more than a wave. In fact, many began calling it a Green Revolution. For a regime that has been terrified about the possibility of a “velvet revolution,” this may have been too much.
On the basis of what we know so far, here is the early sequence of events starting on the afternoon of election day, Friday, June 12:
- Near closing time of the polls, mobile text messaging was turned off nationwide.
- Security forces poured out into the streets in large numbers.
- The Ministry of Interior (election headquarters) was surrounded by concrete barriers and armed men.
- National television began broadcasting pre-recorded messages calling for everyone to unite behind the winner.
- The Mousavi campaign was informed officially that they had won the election, which perhaps served to temporarily lull them into complacency.
- But then the Ministry of Interior announced a landslide victory for Ahmadinejad.
- Unlike previous elections, there was no breakdown of the vote by province, which would have provided a way of judging its credibility.
- The voting patterns announced by the government were identical in all parts of the country, an impossibility.
Less than 24 hours later, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene`i publicly announced his congratulations to the winner, apparently confirming that the process was complete and irrevocable, contrary to constitutional requirements.
- Shortly thereafter, all mobile phones, Facebook, and other social networks were blocked, as well as major foreign news sources.
All of this had the appearance of a well orchestrated strike intended to take its opponents by surprise – the classic definition of a coup. Curiously, this was not a coup of an outside group against the ruling elite; it was a coup of the ruling elite against its own people.
It is still too early for anything like a comprehensive analysis of implications, but here are some initial thoughts:
The willingness of the regime simply to ignore reality and fabricate election results without the slightest effort to conceal the fraud represents a historic shift in Iran’s Islamic revolution. All previous leaders at least paid lip service to the voice of the Iranian people. This suggests that Iran’s leaders are aware of the fact that they have lost credibility in the eyes of many (most?) of their countrymen, so they are dispensing with even the pretense of popular legitimacy in favor of raw power.
The Iranian opposition, which includes some very powerful individuals and institutions, has an agonizing decision to make. If they are intimidated and silenced by the show of force (as they have been in the past), they will lose all credibility in the future with even their most devoted followers. But if they choose to confront their ruthless colleagues forcefully, not only is it likely to be messy but it could risk running out of control and potentially bring down the entire existing power structure, of which they are participants and beneficiaries.
With regard to the United States and the West, nothing would prevent them in principle from dealing with an illegitimate authoritarian government. We do it every day, and have done so for years (the Soviet Union comes to mind). But this election is an extraordinary gift to those who have been most skeptical about President Obama’s plan to conduct negotiations with Iran. Former Bush official Elliott Abrams was quick off the mark, commenting that it is “likely that the engagement strategy has been dealt a very heavy blow.” Two senior Israeli officials quickly urged the world not to engage in negotiations with Iran. Neoconservatives who had already expressed their support for an Ahmadinejad victory now have every reason to be satisfied. Opposition forces, previously on the defensive, now have a perfect opportunity to mount a political attack that will make it even more difficult for President Obama to proceed with his plan.
In their own paranoia and hunger for power, the leaders of Iran have insulted their own fellow revolutionaries who have come to have second thoughts about absolute rule and the costs of repression, and they may have alienated an entire generation of future Iranian leaders. At the same time, they have provided an invaluable gift to their worst enemies abroad.
However this turns out, it is a historic turning point in the 30-year history of Iran’s Islamic revolution. Iranians have never forgotten the external political intervention that thwarted their democratic aspirations in 1953. How will they remember this day?