"Your people, sir—your people is a great beast!" the American founding father Alexander Hamilton is supposed to have spluttered at a dinner party more than two centuries ago. He was not a fan of popular democracy, much less of what would later be called populism: he deemed the people too emotional, too volatile, too inclined to vote against their own best interests. And there probably are a good number of analysts in Europe and the United States who feel that way about the voters who just returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power in Iran.
How could they be so … beastly? What happened to all those charming, articulate young men and women in North Tehran, interviewed again and again on Western television? They were so enthusiastic about Ahmadinejad's main opponent, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi. They were excited about the prospect of more freedoms. They thought Ahmadinejad was a failure and an embarrassment, and they really seemed to like us Americans. Indeed, they seemed almost to be like us Americans. Didn't they speak for the real Iran?
Actually, no. It appears that the working classes and the rural poor—the people who do not much look or act or talk like us—voted overwhelmingly for the scruffy, scrappy president who looks and acts and talks more or less like them. And while Mousavi and his supporters are protesting and even scuffling with police, they are just as likely to be overwhelmed in the streets as they were at the polls.
So what does this beastly development mean for the region and American policy?
The most obvious winner is Israel's right-wing Likud government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. There was never the slightest indication that a Mousavi victory would lead Iran to dial back its program for enriching uranium and, potentially, building nuclear weapons. And Israelis see that program as a threat to their existence, no matter who is president of Iran. But Mousavi's touchy-feely image as a moderate reformist would have clouded the issue, obscuring the potential dangers as the Israelis see them, and making it harder, politically, for Netanyahu to keep open the option of a military attack to set back the nuclear program.
When it looked like Mousavi might win, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC ) started sending out e-mails to American journalists and opinion makers insisting that Mousavi was a very bad guy, too. Specifically, they said Mousavi was responsible for the secret deal with the underground network of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan that laid the foundations for Iran's nuclear program. But now AIPAC doesn't have to worry. Ahmadinejad's solid reputation as a Jew-baiting Holocaust denier will make it easier for Netanyahu to frustrate American attempts at dialogue with Tehran. And for the same reason, in political terms, Iran under Ahmadinejad is a perfect target should Netanyahu decide war is his best or only option.
Would-be peacemakers are losers, of course. Even if Ahmadinejad reins in his rhetoric and tries to reach out to the hand extended by U.S. President Barack Obama, his history will be hard for Obama to shake. America's Arab allies are losers, too. Ahmadinejad's populist appeal reaches beyond Iran to the streets of Cairo, Amman and Riyadh, undermining Arab regimes that have made peace with Israel, or would like to. As Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal put it recently, “Israel is the key for Iran to enter the Arab world.” Mousavi didn't seem interested in that game. Ahmadinejad loves it.
Ironically, the biggest losers may be some powerful members of Iran's clerical establishment. One of the reasons Ahmadinejad was first elected in 2005 is because that beast, the public, was sick of what it saw as the corruption of earlier presidents. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was running against Ahmadinejad and remains at the upper echelons of the theocratic elite, was a particular target. In the closing days of this campaign, Ahmadinejad launched into Rafsanjani and his allies again, suggesting his opponents were just Rafsanjani's tools. And Rafasanjani responded with an unprecedented public letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In thinly veiled language, it warned that all of the old guard, including Khamenei, might be threatened if Ahmadinejad continued with his anticorruption accusations. In the event, Khamenei did nothing to stop Ahmadinejad, and on Saturday Khamenei endorsed the outcome of the elections. But this drama of character assassination at the highest levels of the regime may be far from over.
For the old guard, that could be a beastly development indeed.