Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Iran's Election: The Dust Settles

As we approach a month after Iran's elections the post-election landscape comes into view.

Of course, no evidence has emerged of the type of fraud that would have been necessary to wrongly award the presidency to Ahmadinejad. The argument from Mousavi supporters, especially those in the West are still almost entirely of the form: "if the results are different from what I expected, the only explanation is fraud." In the United States, a Black Democrat won Virginia. That's impossible. Clear proof of fraud. Ever since a massive but undetectable fraud helped Harry Truman steal an election from Thomas Dewey, upsetting prior expectations has been established as reasonable evidence of fraud in elections. Either that or evidence of that form is not evidence at all.

Iran is not as thoroughly polled as the United States, there probably is no other country in the world anywhere close to as thoroughly polled as the United States has been in recent national elections. So Americans especially are accustomed to a degree of certainty of the results of an election before voting takes place that is clearly not warranted in a country like Iran. American and other Western critics of Iran's election refer to polls that were months old and did not take into account huge events such as Iran's first televised debates.

But more importantly, many Americans and other Westerners hate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This hatred severely biases their perceptions of the election. It does not take any proof to convince a pundit that a political figure executed a massive fraud that left no traces if the pundit already hates the political figure.

We can expect Western pundits to continue insisting, very emphatically but still wrongly, that there had to be fraud despite the lack of evidence until the end of Ahmadinejad's term. This sincere, though emotionally based and irrational belief that fraud is the best explanation of Ahmadinejad's victory has already caused fundamental misreadings by US pundits about Iran's situation. One example is that there is an idea that Ahmadinejad is in a weak position domestically and would be helped by the US accepting his victory and resuming engagement with Iran.

Ahmadinejad does not need any more help from the United States than it is already getting when Obama deplores Iran's electoral process. Ahmadinejad stating that millions of people believe there were improprieties in George W. Bush's victory in Ohio in 2004 would not have hurt Bush. Exactly the opposite. Granted Obama is not as externally reviled as Bush or Ahmadinejad, but there is no such thing as an Iranian so reasonable, so moderate that Americans would on net be inspired or moved in any positive way by an Iranian criticism of US elections.

Beyond the belief that Obama is in a position to deliberately give legitimacy to Ahmadinejad by engaging or take legitimacy away from him by deploring him, it is likely that the US now calculates that there may be divisions exposed by the elections that can be used to force Iran to accept the maximal US position that Iran cannot domestically enrich uranium. The US is indicating that it has reverted to the Bush position on this issue, despite fairly clear signals immediately prior to the election that the position had changed. Obama likely thinks the situation is more different from the pre-election situation than Ahmadinejad does.

Increasing pressure makes it more likely that Iran goes ahead and builds and tests a bomb years from now. Iran is domestically enriching now, but not building a weapon. If the US is able to impose substantial sanctions, then the room for making them worse if Iran builds a weapon decreases while the atmosphere of hostility that encourages weapon-building is heightened. There will come a point where Iran calculates that since the most sanctions they are able to impose are already in place, its best course is to exercise its right to leave the NPT, build a weapon and present the world with a fait-accompli as India and Pakistan did.

It still remains the case that the best long term way to prevent Iran from actually building a weapon is to concede domestic enrichment with an increased inspection regime and possibly international participation. The insistence that Iran not be "nuclear capable", which is a concept the Obama administration has become much more comfortable expressing since Iran's election (Iran's leadership will blame that on Mousavi), will make no progress in causing Iran to give up Nuclear capability, but increases the risk that Iran will eventually build an actual nuclear weapon.

Iranian authorities will blame the US change in position and any accompanying increase in sanctions on Mousavi, but Iran will hold in the face of any sanctions the US is actually able to impose. There is somewhat good reason to blame Mousavi. If there had been a decisive fraud, there were resources arrayed around Mousavi to uncover it and definitively expose it. Khamenei would be out of office now if there was a reasonable argument that he was involved in stealing the election.

From his initial call for a revote (Which was always a bizarre proposition. Has that happened anywhere on Earth ever? You deal with electoral fraud by imprisoning the criminals and if enough votes can be demonstrated to be fraudulent you declare the correct result of the original election.) Mousavi has consistently taken actions to maximize the damage to Iran itself but that would have no utility at actually uncovering or convincing Iranians of fraud. Mousavi is done as an Iranian politician.

Iran's reform movement took a huge loss in the election, but amplified that loss immeasurably by its actions after the election. Instead of being favored to win in 2013 the reformers have been discredited possibly for another decade.

There have been two outcomes of the election. In Iran, Ahmadinejad and his faction of power have moved into a commanding position of power, with nearly no effective opposition. There is also an environment of increased hostility between the West and Iran. Likely this hostility will not spiral out of control. The main factors leading both sides to make moves towards de-escalation of tensions in early June still remain. Western perceptions have changed, but they'll probably be changed back by reality before large numbers of people are harmed.

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