One of the interesting sidelights of the reaction to the Iranian election is the debate here over whether the announced landslide re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is legitimate or not. The vast majority of those opining on the subject have assumed that Ahmadinejad’s victory by an astonishingly high margin over Mir Hussein Moussavi had to be a fraud. But not everyone is buying it and those who are saying that Ahmadinejad’s win actually does reflect the will of the people are not all on one side of the spectrum when it comes to what to do about Iran.
Over at the New Republic, Martin Peretz, who has not let his cheerleading for Obama’s election last year prevent him from pointing out the fecklessness of our current policy on Iran, writes:
My impression is that the incumbent’s margin of victory was too big to have been fraudulent and the loser’s numbers also too big. Tyrannies don’t play around with the numbers like this. A dictator usually wants 99% of the voters to have been for him. But in Iran we were seeing the remnants of a true civil society, the last expressions of which were during the time of the Shah. It would be a blessing if this were to be the beginnings of a renaissance.
Maybe the regime fiddled around a bit with the numbers at the polls and after the polling. Still, the outcome had a sense of authenticity. A vast majority in the country is poor, and there is where the backing for Ahmadinejad and his ayatollah patrons is deepest.
Equally skeptical about the charges of fraud but more sympathetic to Tehran (and still supportive of engagement with the Islamic regime) are Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, a staffer at the left-wing New America Foundation. They write in today’s Washington Post that the polls they have conducted in Iran prior to the election back up the regime’s claim of an Ahmadinejad landslide. Inexplicably, their survey results show support for “a more democratic system, with normal relations with the United States, as consonant with their support for Ahmadinejad.”
Make of that what you will, but as much as I believe the United States ought to speak up strongly about the possibility of fraud and against the suppression of street protests and the arrest of opposition leaders, it is still possible that Ahmadinejad is actually the choice of a majority of Iranians. The idea that the Iranian people would willingly choose to be led by a man who seems to speak and act irrationally goes against every instinct of the Western mind. The people crying out for justice and change in the streets of Tehran seem to be like us in their disdain for an odious clerical dictatorship. Surely, we think, these protesters are representative of the majority of Iranians.
But what if they are in the minority? What does it say about the prospects of any diplomatic engagement with Iran if a Holocaust denier and a man bent on the annihilation of Israel and confrontation with the West has won again? It is one thing to think of that country as being ruled against the will of its people, by a repressive Islamist regime. But the notion that such a government could actually represent the will of the people there is probably too frightening for most of us to contemplate.
But fraud or not, the event of the past few days ought to disillusion even those most dedicated to appeasement of Iran. Obama may have been counting on Ahmadinejad’s defeat to justify his administration’s decision to punt on the nuclear issue. But whether Iran is ruled by a popular man who is nevertheless a threat to the West or by a regime that is repressing its people in order to stick to Ahmadinejad’s mad policies, any Obama determination to pursue a policy of engagement represents sheer folly.