With elections in Lebanon and Iran occurring in the same week, it’s inevitable that they are viewed as twin tests of efforts to spread democracy to the Muslim world. Should we celebrate the outcome in Lebanon and push for elections throughout the Middle East, or sourly note that Hezbollah has exactly as many guns now as it had when it was defeated at the polls on Sunday? Is the Iranian presidential election today a festival of freedom or a cover for theocracy?
What the United States should be promoting is not elections, but free elections, and the voting in Lebanon passed any realistic test. Anyone who wanted to run could run. The participation rate was 53 percent, close to our turnout in last year’s presidential race. By all accounts the votes were counted fairly. There are rumors about large amounts of Saudi money floating in to support the victorious March 14 coalition, but so what? Hezbollah gets at least $200 million a year from Iran. It is striking that the losers are not crying foul; they too agree the election was fundamentally fair.
However, was it fair but meaningless, given Hezbollah’s military might? That is not the judgment of the winners — the pro-Western March 14 group — who believe they have crippled any claim by Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to speak for the Lebanese people.
Hezbollah’s inability to win support outside its Shiite base, along with the poor showing of its Christian ally, Gen. Michel Aoun, leaves Sheik Nasrallah diminished and less able to drag Lebanon into another war with Israel. He will play hardball, no doubt, in the negotiations over the next Lebanese government, and he retains the ability to take over downtown Beirut as he did in May 2008. But such displays of power were apparently the exact kind of thing that turned off swing voters — mostly Christians — and Hezbollah now uses them at its political peril.
We should not idealize Lebanon’s election, nor its politics. Most voters support only candidates from their own religious group, and the political talk is not of liberals and conservatives but of Armenians, Maronites, Druze, Shiites and Sunnis. Some districts seem as permanently owned by one family as any “rotten borough” in 19th-century England. Still, the election produced a consequential result: the majority of Lebanese have rejected Hezbollah’s claim that it is not a terrorist group but a “national resistance.”
Unfortunately, Iran’s election today presents the voters with no similar opportunity. There is no chance for voters to register their opposition to the theocratic system or tell the ayatollahs to go back to the mosques. The candidates have been carefully screened to exclude anyone opposed to the ruling clerical establishment; each is part of the Islamic Revolution’s old guard.
Nor is it likely that the votes will be fairly counted; indeed most analysts concluded that the 2005 election was manipulated to produce Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidential victory. Vote destruction and ballot stuffing are easy in a hidden process controlled by the Interior Ministry. And if all else fails, the 12-man Guardian Council has the power to throw out the results in districts where there were “problems” — problems like a reformist victory.
Voting in Iran is a contrivance for settling certain policy disputes and personal rivalries within the ruling elite. Elections are not without meaning; if Mr. Ahmadinejad loses, it may result in more sensible economic policies and fewer loud calls for the destruction of Israel. But Iran doesn’t hold elections for supreme leader — Ayatollah Ali Khameini will hold that post for the indefinite future — and the failed presidency of Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2005 reminds us that the power of a putative reformist is illusory. The Khatami years saw increased repression inside Iran, growing support for Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups, and the covert construction of the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz.
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s defeat would probably be welcomed abroad as a sign that Iran is moving away from his policies, but Iran’s policies aren’t his — they are dictated by Ayatollah Khamenei and his supporters in the Revolutionary Guard and Basij paramilitary. In fact, a victory by Mr. Ahmadinejad’s main challenger, Mir Hussein Moussavi, is more likely to change Western policy toward Iran than to change Iran’s own conduct. If the delusion that a new president would surely mean new opportunities to negotiate away Iran’s nuclear program strikes Western leaders, solidarity might give way to pre-emptive concessions.
Elections matter, but how much they matter depends entirely on how free, open and fair they are. The Lebanese had a chance to vote against Hezbollah, and took the opportunity. Iranians, unfortunately, are being given no similar chance to decide who they really want to govern them.
Elliott Abrams, deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.