The Times – Leading Article: Zealots take fright when their zealotry is challenged. Within hours of the polls closing in Iran's turbulent election, the clerical establishment declared President Ahmadinejad the winner – not just by a credible razor-thin majority but by an absurd and falsified two thirds of the vote. The attempt to impart a veneer of democratic legitimacy to a regime widely hated for its authoritarian intolerance, economic incompetence and corruption backfired.
Iran's hardliners, determined to cling to power, were swift to falsify election results that might have brought freedom. The regime is now likely to test the West again
Zealots take fright when their zealotry is challenged. Within hours of the polls closing in Iran's turbulent election, the clerical establishment declared President Ahmadinejad the winner – not just by a credible razor-thin majority but by an absurd and falsified two thirds of the vote. The attempt to impart a veneer of democratic legitimacy to a regime widely hated for its authoritarian intolerance, economic incompetence and corruption backfired. Open debate, demonstrations and pro-Western chants revealed a polarised society, an angry middle class and a younger generation yearning for freedom. If the Islamist revolution was to be preserved, this had to be stopped. And it was, swiftly and brutally.
Few Iranians can be surprised. For a few brief weeks of the Tehran spring, the hardliners saw where free expression could lead. They saw women flouting the rules on clothing, men and women mingling, dancing in the squares, placards denouncing dictatorship and broadcasts revealing the lies and corruption of state officials. Little wonder that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, saw the unravelling of clerical power. Little wonder that the religious police, kept in check while foreign journalists reported the brief flirtation with democracy, were sent in with their truncheons to scatter the crowds and their hopes. Little wonder that the polling stations, under the control of the incumbent President, were ordered to return such obvious lies as the heavy defeat of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main opposition challenger, in his own village.
Like the sporadic uprisings in the old Soviet empire, the young and the idealistic had underestimated the threat they posed. They had tried to take official hypocrisy about democracy at face value. They had hoped to exploit the charade of an election to force an end to repression at home and antics abroad. They had begun to believe that change would come. Instead comes the vengeful backlash. President Ahmadinejad said the unrest was “not important” and boasted of a “free and healthy” election. But the authorities are taking no chances. Mobile phone messaging has been cut and internet sites blocked. Demonstrators have been arrested. The foreign media have been denounced. And all further debate has been ruled out with Ayatollah Khamenei's description of the result as a “divine assessment”.
The outside world, less naive than Mr Mousavi's supporters, has been cautious. Western leaders have talked of their “worry” at the situation. Washington has expressed disappointment and scepticism at the result, but insists its offer of dialogue still stands. Few have made the mistake of promising support to the losers that cannot be delivered. Indeed, the outcome may make it easier to deal with Tehran: with the election out of the way, Mr Ahmadinejad is free to respond to the Obama initiatives and defuse opposition anger by moving to end Iran's isolation. Had he admitted defeat, the protracted and bloody attempts of the clergy and the Revolutionary Guard to regain control would have paralysed all foreign policy.
A return to business as usual is unlikely, however. The regime's confidence has been shaken. Its jittery reaction will force renewed repression. In turn, the embittered urban electorate will hardly let its anger at this deception die down. Mr Ahmadinejad is not the sort of man to show magnanimity or statesmanship in victory: a more likely reaction is to redouble the provocations abroad, to spurn the US open hand and to offer further threats to Israel in the expectation of a Netanyahu reaction. That will not be slow in coming, as the Israeli Prime Minister made clear yesterday. Iran will continue to test Western nerves and vigilance. At least, however, time is on the reformers' side. Repression cannot hold back for ever a nation yearning for change.