The Iranian rebellion
Monday, 15 June 2009
The Wall Street Journal
Will Obama stand with Tehran's democratic reformers?
REVIEW & OUTLOOK
Even sham elections can sometimes produce real results. That was the lesson of the Philippines in 1986 and of Ukraine in 2004. And though Friday's election in Iran is unlikely to yield a similar democratic outcome anytime soon, the poll matters for having again revealed the nature of mullah rule –– to the Iranians who cast ballots expecting they'd be counted, and to a world that finds its illusions about Iranian democracy shattered.
The election was a sham thrice over. Though elected by popular vote, Iran's president is subservient to an unelected Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The four candidates whose names made it on the presidential ballot this year were pre-screened by an unelected Guardian Council composed mostly of Islamic clerics, which also disqualified more than 400 others.
What's remarkable is that these leaders still felt the need to rig the results. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won by a two-to-one reported margin over principal challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi despite having driven the Iranian economy into a ditch. As the Associated Press reported, election authorities were miraculously able to count millions of paper ballots almost immediately after the polls closed to hand Mr. Ahmadinejad his supposed victory. In previous elections, the vote count had come more slowly and with regional delays. "What is most shocking is not the fraud itself, but that it was brazen and entirely without pretext," writes Laura Secor in the New Yorker.
In the days before the election, Western reporters had heralded a potential upset as they followed Mr. Mousavi's campaign. But Supreme Leader Khamenei had already signaled the outcome by tipping his hat in Mr. Ahmadinejad's favor, and quickly endorsed it after the fact. Mr. Mousavi, who was the Ayatollah Khomeini's prime minister during the Iran-Iraq War, is nobody's idea of an Iranian Corazon Aquino. Yet regime hardliners apparently couldn't countenance even the chance of a Mikhail Gorbachev-type who comes to power attempting to reform the system. And as Mr. Mousavi's campaign gained support as the only way to register public dissatisfaction, many foreign observers bought the democratic illusion.
Now Mr. Mousavi's supporters are in Tehran's streets, scuffling with riot police and chanting "death to the dictator," meaning Mr. Ahmadinejad but probably Mr. Khamenei as well. This has the potential to be an historic moment, though the regime is already showing by its display of force against protestors that it will not give up power easily. One precedent for many Iranian protestors is the regime's bloody crackdown on university student protests in 1999, in which scores of students disappeared.
Having shown such courage, the demonstrators deserve Western support, not least from the media that have recently trumpeted the Mousavi candidacy as evidence of Iran's openness and potential for reform, conciliation and so on. Whatever happens in the days ahead, the world has now seen the tyranny raw. The least we owe the protestors is not to look away.
[b]That moral obligation goes especially for the Obama Administration. President Obama came to office promising the world's dictators an open hand in exchange for an unclenched fist. But as with Kim Jong Il's nuclear advances and the sham trial of two Americans in North Korea, Mr. Khamenei has repudiated the President's diplomacy of friendly overture. It turns out that the "axis of evil" really is evil –– and not, as liberal sages would have it, merely misunderstood.
The vote should prompt Mr. Obama to rethink his pursuit of a grand nuclear bargain with Iran, though early indications suggest he plans to try anyway. On Saturday, the New York Times quoted one unnamed senior Administration official to the effect that the election uproar would cause Mr. Ahmadinejad to be more receptive to Mr. Obama's overtures as a sop to disgruntled public opinion. If the Administration really believes this, then Mr. Obama is the second coming of Jimmy Carter and the mullahs will play him for time to get their bomb.
However, Mr. Obama has also stressed the importance of democracy, rule of law and transparency, most recently in the June 4 Cairo speech in which he addressed himself directly to the world's Muslims, Iranian-Muslims included. Now the stand-off in Tehran will test –– more quickly than Mr. Obama probably imagined –– whether he was serious when he said "we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments –– provided they govern with respect for all their people."
Mr. Obama has the opportunity to lend the protestors the considerable weight of U.S. moral support, just as he has the opportunity to show the regime there are consequences for stealing elections. One such consequence would be for the President to remove his opposition to various bills in Congress, sponsored by Independent Democrat Joe Lieberman and others, that sanction companies that sell gasoline to Iran. An estimated 40% of Iran's domestic gasoline consumption comes from foreign sources.
In Iran today, a sham election has been met with an open revolt. This takes great courage. The world's free nations need the courage to do better than respond with the sham policy of making nice with an illegitimate regime.