The West fooled itself Iran would allow reform

Barack Obama found it “exciting” and Hillary Clinton saw it as “a positive sign”. Others, like Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former US national security adviser, went further and praised it as a “vibrant democracy”. A variety of useful idiots at home and abroad expressed similar illusions about the Iranian presidential election on Friday.

Many had hoped the exercise would dislodge President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the maverick who has vowed to chase the United States out of the Middle East, wipe Israel off the map and prepare the ground for the hidden imam, Shi’ite Islam’s “end of times” figure of retribution. In the event, the election turned out to be a choreographed affair designed to reinforce Ahmadinejad’s position as the leader of “resurgent Islam”.

Officially put at 85%, voter turnout was the highest in Iran’s history. Ahmadinejad won with 63%, collecting more votes than any of his predecessors. The results were arranged to give him a two-thirds majority among all categories of voters – men, women, young and old, poor and middle class, and in all of Iran’s 30 provinces. Whoever wrote the script also made sure that his three rivals, all veterans of the Khomeinist revolution, were roundly defeated even in their respective home towns.

Only one candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the former prime minister, has tried to contest the results. Some analysts had tipped Mousavi, a cousin of the “supreme guide” Ali Khamenei, as the likely winner and the ideal partner for President Obama in his quest for unconditional talks with Iran. By midday Saturday it was clear that Mousavi would not try to rock the boat. Rather than calling his supporters into the streets, he wrote a letter to his cousin, pleading for “action to avoid injustice”. Ahmadinejad’s camp responded by announcing a rally in Tehran today to celebrate his victory.

Ahmadinejad’s narrative was simple. He presented himself as a man of the people with a mission to restore the purity of a revolution sullied by corruption and hypocrisy. He portrayed a ruling elite that spoke of the “downtrodden” but lived in palaces, of mullahs who spoke more of contracts and deals than of faith and doctrine.

Branded “a dangerous masquerade” by Mousavi, Friday’s election should end illusions about the possibility of changing the regime’s strategy through internal evolution and peaceful action. Ever since the mullahs seized power in 1979, Iran has suffered a crisis of identity, torn between its ambitions as a force for messianic revolution on the one hand and its interests as a nation-state on the other. Mousavi had incarnated the hope of Iran reaffirming its identity as a nation-state. Ahmadinejad’s victory symbolises the determination to emphasise the revolutionary aspect of Iran’s identity, even if that means sacrificing some of its interests as a nation-state. Iran may continue behaving like a cause rather than a country.

Ahmadinejad will have to cope with the deep divisions in the ruling establishment that he has brought to the surface. During his campaign he portrayed the terms of his two predecessors, Mohammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani, as “murky periods” when some mullahs and their associates “plundered” the nation’s wealth and kowtowed to “imperialist powers”.

The president has a mandate to purge the regime of its allegedly corrupt elements who tried to form a united front to defeat him. By focusing on an internal purge, Ahmadinejad may want to ease tension on the foreign policy front.

The United States under Obama is bending over backwards to open a dialogue with the Islamic republic. In his Cairo “address to the Muslim world”, Obama implicitly accepted Iran’s right to seek a nuclear capability. “No single nation should pick and choose which nation holds nuclear weapons,” he said. Since then Obama and Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, have tried to repackage the Iranian nuclear issue not as a problem in itself but because it might trigger “a nuclear arms race in the Middle East”.

It is possible that Ahmadinejad, radical rhetoric notwithstanding, may try to ease tension with Washington provided he is allowed to pursue his nuclear ambitions. Days before the election he dispatched Manouchehr Mottaki, his foreign minister, to Paris to ask President Sarkozy to broker a telephone conversation between Obama and the Iranian leader. Paris and Washington dismissed it as “electoral opportunism”.

Ahmadinejad has won a massive victory over his rivals in the Establishment. But the Khomeinist regime remains deeply unpopular, especially among young Iranians, who account for two-thirds of the population. Yesterday Tehran and other cities witnessed antiregime demonstrations, mostly young people shouting, “Shame on you Ahmadinejad! Quit the government!” Although small and isolated, these protests could in time grow into a mass movement. Iran is also heading for economic meltdown, with a daily loss of 1,000 jobs and inflation of more than 20%. Ahmadinejad’s election slogan is “Ma mitavanim” (We can), like Obama’s “Yes we can”. Iran’s leader has been true to his slogan by showing he can fix the election results to the last detail. But can he cope with a restive population, a divided establishment and an economy heading for deep recession?

Amir Taheri, an Iranian journalist.