Iran elections: The hope that Iran threw away
A vital chance to rebuild economic relations with the West was lost in the disputed election, writes David Blair.
By David Blair
Published: 12:24AM BST 15 Jun 2009
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The mass protests against the outcome of Iran's election seemed to carry an air of desperate anger. Perhaps the most moving scene involved a group of young demonstrators, displaying the green colours of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the defeated challenger, breaking into English and chanting: "We want freedom."
In an instant, these television pictures from Tehran delivered a stark reminder that Iran is not a backward country of medieval fanatics, but a modern nation with 70 million people, two thirds of whom are under 30 and have the same interests and aspirations as their Western counterparts.
Yet they must live under a theocratic regime, dominated by the enigmatic figure of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader. The lesson of this election is clear: the hard men who wield real power in Iran and the newly re-elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is only their most visible representative are determined never to loosen their grip.
The unspoken theme of Iranian politics for the past decade has been the tension between the country's ageing clerical establishment and a youthful, culturally Westernised population, with no memory of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 or the corrupt, repressive era of Shah Reza Pahlavi.
This gulf between the rulers and their people has been widened by decades of economic failure, caused by the country's isolation from the West and the squandering of its immense oil wealth. Consequently, Iran is burdened by crushing levels of youth unemployment, and its brightest and best people have emigrated in their millions.
Ayatollah Khamenei and his allies are clearly aware of the potential threat all this poses to the regime. Regular elections are the one safety valve they allow for discontent. The result of the presidential poll announced on Saturday, however, shows the limits.
If the shadowy figures who really rule Iran decide that victory for their favoured candidate is sufficiently important and Mr Ahmadinejad is clearly their chosen frontman then the authorities will duly guarantee that he wins. Anyone who protests against this outcome risks the wrath of the Islamic Republic's plethora of security forces.
In this case, however, the Supreme Leader and his allies may not be acting in their own interests. If their goal is to press ahead with their nuclear programme, while avoiding international pressure and a possible war with America or Israel, they have almost certainly made the wrong move.
A remarkable coup was there for the taking had they been willing to allow Mr Mousavi to win. Iran would then have become the first country in the history of the Middle East to remove a sitting president in a peaceful election. Its global image would have been transformed.
Among Western governments, there would have been in the words of one British official "a yearning" to give the new President Mousavi a chance. Turning the screw on Iran by imposing more sanctions or preparing a military strike would have been off the agenda.
Meanwhile, the centrifuges inside Iran's underground nuclear plant at Natanz are turning out about 100 kg of low-enriched uranium every month. If the regime's gameplan is to play for time while it perfects its nuclear programme and eventually acquires the option of building an atomic bomb, allowing Mr Mousavi to win would have been the best possible course.
Instead, Mr Ahmadinejad's controversial re-election will have two dangerous consequences. First, it could be seen as a repudiation of President Barack Obama's offer of a new relationship between Iran and America.
Washington's overtures towards the Islamic Republic have gone further than many expected. Since taking office, Mr Obama has not only sought to placate Iran's yearning for respect by hailing the glories of its culture and history, he has also offered the regime unconditional talks on any subject.
So far, Tehran has simply failed to respond. America and her allies have twice offered Iran technical help with a civilian nuclear programme, along with trade and investment, if the regime obeys five United Nations resolutions and stops enriching uranium. Once again, Iran has not responded. Officials from the six countries who made this offer Britain, America, Germany, France, Russia and China want to meet their Iranian counterparts to discuss the proposal. They have been trying to fix a date since April.
So far, Tehran will not even agree an appointment. Saeed Jalili, a hardline ally of Mr Ahmadinejad who serves as secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, routinely fails to respond to these requests.
This leads to the second consequence of Mr Ahmadinejad's victory: those who argue that talks with Iran are pointless because the regime is not interested in resolving the nuclear issue will have their hand strengthened. They will point to the president's words yesterday when he declared that the nuclear question "belongs in the past".
In particular, Israel's hardline government under Benjamin Netanyahu must be heaving a sigh of relief at the outcome of Iran's election. The argument for turning the screw on Iran, first by tightening economic sanctions and then, in extremis, by preparing military strikes against the country's nuclear facilities will become harder to resist.
There is a chance that all this will prove unduly pessimistic. Some officials advance a slender case for optimism about Mr Ahmadinejad. He is, at least, a known quantity. As a visceral hardliner with nothing to prove, he may be better placed to make a deal on the principle that only Richard Nixon, the staunch anti-communist, could have restored America's relations with China. Moreover, Mr Ahmadinejad clearly enjoys the trust of Ayatollah Khamenei and no rapprochement with the West could happen without the Supreme Leader's approval.
The central question is whether Iran has the political will to reach an agreement. By any rational analysis, the country's rulers should be looking for a way out. There is, after all, a remorseless logic behind their predicament.
The long-term failure of Iran's economy and the inexorable growth of youth unemployment this has caused must eventually threaten the regime's survival. Anyone who wants to preserve the Islamic Republic must revive the economy. This requires a degree of openness to trade and investment from the West. Therefore, Iran's isolation must be ended and the confrontation over the nuclear programme resolved.
The crucial divide in Iranian politics is between those who accept this logic and those who do not. Mr Mousavi has said enough to show that he is on the right side of this argument. He recently told the Financial Times
that economic revival would be his priority, and he explicitly linked this to easing tensions with the West.
"In foreign policy, we can have better relations with the world, which is surely very significant to help our country's development," he said. "I consider dιtente the principle to build confidence between Iran and other countries."
Mr Ahmadinejad, by contrast, has shown through word and deed that he fails to grasp the link between his country's isolation and its domestic woes.
This leaves the burning question: on which side of the divide is Ayatollah Khamenei? After almost 20 years as Supreme Leader, he turns 70 next month. His position at the apex of the country's opaque power structure is probably secure for the rest of his life.
But he wants to bequeath an Islamic Republic to his successor, and he must have pondered the central dilemma: would resolving the confrontation with the West render this more or less likely?
The Ayatollah's public statements, filled with references to Western "conspiracies" and "enemies", suggest that he actually prefers isolation. So does his backing for Mr Ahmadinejad.
Yet, in this country of shadows, Ayatollah Khamenei's real opinions are the most important riddle of all. For good or ill, the next few years will reveal the answer.