06.13.09

Hillary's Tricky Iran Game

As evidence mounts that Ahmadinejad stole Iran's election, Hillary Clinton has notably avoided condemning the results. The Daily Beast's Leslie H. Gelb on why the Obama administration isn't closing any doors.

Plus, read more insight on Iran's election from other Daily Beast writers.

Odds are that the Iranian clerics and their friends stole the presidential elections. Odds are that Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad won’t ignore the protests they heard and will bend toward talks with the West—contrary to expert predictions of a vast internal crackdown. And odds are that the Obama administration will keep reaching for the Iranian hand, though right wingers will swear this is selling out democracy.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not condemn. She implicitly cast aspersions on the results, but did nothing to close any doors to talks.

Here’s why it’s fair to conclude the elections were fraudulent. The official claim that Ahmadenijad won with two-thirds of the vote is totally contrary to almost all polls showing a close outcome between the president and his chief rival Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister. In fact, some polls predicted that neither would reach the required 50 percent, and that there’d be a runoff. Also, every Iranian observer said beforehand that the larger the turnout, the more likely Mousavi would do well, if not even win. The voters flocked to the polls, and the polls were kept open long beyond required hours. Finally, the great majority of Iranians are under 30, their turnout was high, and most were reckoned to be most dissatisfied with Iran’s economic decline and international isolation.

If anyone still has any doubt about the fraud, consider this precise announcement 12 hours after the polls closed: Mr. Ahmadinejad received “62.3 percent” of the popular vote. This precision from a highly rural and largely developing country, where many of the votes obviously weren’t even counted. That is, they almost certainly had to be “counted” before they were cast. And like dictators everywhere, they didn’t skimp on their margin of victory. They didn’t offer close results for credibility's sake; they stole big to demonstrate they were still the bosses.

Gazing upon this brazen thievery, many Western experts on Iran now predict a thorough-going crackdown against those who spoke ill of the powers-that-be, the guardians of Islam and of Persian honor. Indeed, the supreme leader warned the losers to accept the outcome and not try to tear the nation apart. Indeed, Mousavi already challenged this by saying that he would “never surrender to this dangerous charade.” Indeed, thousands of the unhappy have already taken to the streets.

A crackdown can’t be dismissed, but I’d bet otherwise. Ayatollah Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are quite cunning. Like practiced dictators, they know they have to prove they are still in charge. And they are not dumb. They must have felt hammered by the brazen and bold critiques they have heard these last weeks from the mouths of their people. Candidates and people openly called them liars and thieves (though not the supreme leader). They are unlikely to ignore this powerful message. They are too shrewd to test whether all the police and all the armed forces will back them if hundreds of thousands of unhappy Iranians pour into the streets.

My guess is that the bosses will restore order, but make clear that they will make some of the changes demanded by the political opposition. They will have to throw some bones to the popular fervor. In particular, they’ll have to do something on the economy, where poverty abounds and inflation is well above 15 percent (depending how it’s calculated). But there isn’t much Tehran can do to improve these conditions without reconnecting with the West and especially the United States. Western economic sanctions have not brought the clerical house down, but they have severely reduced investment, credit, and trade. Which means the bosses in Tehran will have to unclench their fists and make some face-saving gestures back toward President Obama. Also, there’s no doubt that they understand that once they open the economic doors, the West will require that Iran’s nuclear program be placed on the bargaining table as well.

All this will be complicated and drawn-out, but it will occur now because it’s in the interests of both Tehran and Washington to work together—or at least not be outright enemies. Which explains as well the rather mild reaction to the mullahs' electoral thievery by the American administration.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not condemn. She implicitly cast aspersions on the results, but did nothing to close any doors to talks. She simply said that Washington wanted the elections to reflect “the will of the people.” And who could argue with that, except for right wingers bent on open confrontation, if not military action, against Iran? They want the negotiating doors locked and boarded up. Obama is treading carefully in a very different direction. Basically, the White House has decided that the United States potentially has much to gain and little to lose by going forward with talks. It is the only way to get Tehran’s help on Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other regional problems where Tehran also seeks stability and doesn’t want problems spilling into Iran itself. And talks are a far cheaper way of tackling Iran’s growing nuclear capability, compared to war. Obama has already strongly hinted at a move on this critical issue. In his now-famous Cairo speech, he talked of drawing the line at Iran continuing to develop nuclear weapons and not at its possessing a peaceful uranium-enrichment operation under strict international inspection.

It would have been much better for Iran and for the West if Mousavi had been allowed to win. Now, negotiations will be much slower and more tortuous, but likely will begin before 2010.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.