There are two equally appalling explanations for what happened in Iran's presidential elections on Friday: Either the election was stolen, or it wasn't. Either scenario leads to the same conclusion: This is a truly sad day for Iran.
But it also confronts President Obama and others who oppose the hard-line clerics who have run the country (into the ground) since its revolution 30 years ago with a painful choice.
It is still possible, though unlikely, that 62.6 percent of Iran's eligible voters may have spurned the pragmatic, reformist policies of former prime minister Mir Hussein Mousavi in favor of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the anti-Semitic, economically incompetent, Holocaust-denying president.
The election may indeed have reflected widespread support, especially among the old, the rural, and the poor for Ahmadinejad's hateful, hard-line positions. While depressing, that is the view of a minority of Iran watchers who have weighed in with over 100 posts on Gary Sick's awesome Web site, Gulf 2000, since the polls in Iran closed.
One of them, Flynt Leverett, a former State Department critic of the Bush administration who supports diplomatic engagement with Teheran, argues that Ahmadinejad's alleged 62.6 percent margin of victory is "essentially indistinguishable from the 61.69 percentage he received in the second round of the 2005 presidential election, when he trounced former president Rafsanjani." Similarly, while not discounting the possibility that the election was stolen, Deborah Campbell, a veteran Canadian journalist, urges us to remember "how strong is the conservative and rural sector in Iran (where Ahmadinejad was greeted as one of their own in the last election)" and how few journalists venture out of the wine-sipping, Facebook-watching, text-message sending confines of the capital, and of Northern Teheran, in particular, where those who inhabit the wealthy flats and villas nestled in the mountain overlooking the capital breathe, figuratively and literally, freer air.
"At moments like this," conceded Middle East analyst Gordon Robison, (MideastAnalysis.com) who still believes that the election was probably stolen, "it is easy to forget that Teheran is not Iran."
But a majority of those who published posts on Gulf 2000, on Andrew Sullivan's "Daily Dish," and on Trita Parsi's site, the National Iranian American Council's "Insight," which translates many of the Iranian Facebook and Twitter feeds from Farsi into English, smelled a rat in the election outcome.
Web master scholars Gary Sick and Juan Cole cite several indications that the ruling clerical clique denied Mousavi and his young "green wave" supporters a hard-fought electoral victory in what amounted to a veritable political "coup d'etat," or a palace revolution within Iran's ruling elite. Near the polls' closing time , Sick and Cole noted, mobile text messaging was turned off nationwide and security forces poured into the streets. Hours later, Facebook, YouTube, and other social networking systems were also blocked. Unlike previous elections, the Interior Ministry, which runs the election, failed to breakdown the vote by province, which would have helped observers assess its credibility. Moreover, the voting patterns that the government announced were identical in all parts of the country — an impossibility — Cole asserts. Writing in the New York Post, Amir Taheri noted that Ahmadinejad allegedly beat each of his three challengers in their own hometowns. Although the government was supposed to wait to examine complaints of irregularity before announcing a victor, the state-run media pronounced Ahmadinejad the winner less than two hours after the polls closed. On Saturday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blessed that verdict by declaring Ahmadinejad's alleged victory, ludicrously, a "divine assessment."
Predictably, Mousavi, the defeated reformer, cried foul and urged the powerful Guardian Council to annul the results. By Sunday, a Persian Web site was reporting that Mr. Mousavi himself –- along with other reformist leaders –- was under house arrest.
While the regime has not previously hesitated to tamper with election results at the margin, what would have caused the senior clerics to panic to such an extent as to intervene so brazenly and fabricate elections results so clumsily?
That, too, remains unclear. The mullahs, after all, had already manipulated the contest to ensure that Ahmadinejad would not face serious opposition. The unelected 12-member Guardian Council, which represents the senior mullahs' interests and hence, holds real power, had disqualified 470 would-be candidates, including 42 women, even before the race began. Iran's election was supposed to be a show — a carefully orchestrated shadow play in which Iranians complained about their deteriorating economic conditions and stultifying political repression and chose among carefully vetted, Islamicly correct candidates who would perpetuate clerical rule.
So, if it turns out that the aging clerics stole the election, they must have felt genuinely threatened by the belated, but massive outpouring of "Mousavi-mania," especially among those under 30 — which includes 70 percent of Iran's population. Though Mousavi, a former prime minister and founder of the revolution, never challenged the political system, he was promising reform, a softer tone, and ambiguous "engagement" with the West. And although the aptly named "supreme leader" Khamenei, not the Iranian president, makes decisions about pursing nuclear weapons and other national security issues, the ruler's clique must have been terrified that the popular tide was finally turning against them. Perhaps they were rattled by the electoral victory of the pro-Western "March 14 coalition" over the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon. Perhaps the warm reception for President Obama's speech to the Muslims, offering engagement and a new beginning, denied them the cudgel of anti-Americanism that has previously served the regime so well.
Despite its belligerent rhetoric and aggressive covert actions, the clerics must clearly have felt embattled. As Iranian author Reza Aslam argues, while many Western critics see Iran as an aggressive rogue state intent on expanding its power throughout the region, the regime itself feels beset by internal and external foes, particularly America, whose forces now encircle them in Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey, and Afghanistan.
But if the clerics stole the race, they may have badly miscalculated. At very least they will have outraged their internal and external critics and given opponents cause to deny the Islamic republic's legitimacy. If they resist President Obama's engagement –- should he choose to continue pursuing that course — pressure for serious, crippling economic sanctions is likely to grow. If, on the other hand, the clerics try to defuse the uproar against them by seizing the diplomatic initiative and offering to engage Washington in talks, they will enter such negotiations on the defensive. Permitting user-friendly Mousavi to have been the benevolent, smiling face of this oppressive regime might have eased domestic pressures at home and assuaged naïve critics abroad. Retaining Ahmadinejad, who never saw an outstretched hand he did not want to bite, is likely to weaken Iran's credibility over time. The bar for any deal with Teheran, could well be higher now. But this is what the clerics probably wanted.
Much depends on understanding what has happened in Teheran. Now more than ever, President Obama must not appear over eager to engage Iran after what may turn out to have been a rigged election. Unless Iranian fury touches off sustained nation-wide protests that destabilize the 30-year old Islamic regime — an unlikely scenario since the mullahs and the military have the guns –- Obama will find his administration engaging a regime whose duly, or unduly elected president holds views that the president himself, in his now-famous Cairo speech to Muslims called "baseless," "ignorant," and "hateful."