The Wall Street Journal – GLOBAL VIEW: Whoever wins an electoral runoff and becomes Iran’s new president, the news won’t be good, either for Iranians or Americans and Europeans disturbed about the regime’s quest for nuclear weaponry. The country’s ruling mullahs blatantly displayed their muscle, and vote-rigging skills, in last Friday’s initial vote. That suggests that
they are no longer interested in creating even the illusion of
political moderation. The Wall Street Journal
By GEORGE MELLOAN
Whoever wins an electoral runoff and becomes Iran’s new president, the news won’t be good, either for Iranians or Americans and Europeans disturbed about the regime’s quest for nuclear weaponry. The country’s ruling mullahs blatantly displayed their muscle, and vote-rigging skills, in last Friday’s initial vote. That suggests that they are no longer interested in creating even the illusion of political moderation.
The retiring incumbent, Mohammad Khatami, is a genial man who once stirred hopes of political reforms in Iran. When reforms appeared to be gaining ground, the Guardian Council, through which the mullahs wield their absolute power, stepped in and quashed them. They also shielded themselves from a possible uprising in last Friday’s presidential election by disqualifying all candidates except those professing loyalty to the regime.
They didn’t even stop there. Although a former president, the wily Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, came out on top, it was no clear victory. Under mysterious circumstances that included a late-day official order keeping the polls open an extra four hours, a dark horse with no known popular following came in second. His name is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former mayor of Tehran and acknowledged hard-liner. He and Mr. Rafsanjani will go head-to-head in a runoff election scheduled for Friday.
Antiregime forces who monitored polling places claimed there was nowhere near the 62% voter turnout the government claimed. Few Iranians today support the harsh theocratic rule that has been their lot since the cynical and murderous ayatollahs came to power. An election boycott seemed to be succeeding until the overtime was called.
Friday’s exercise was too much even for supposed loyalists. Mahdi Karroubi, who was nosed out for second by the last-minute surge of Mr. Ahmadinejad, publicly accused the authorities of vote rigging, which emboldened some of the other defeated candidates to complain. Supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was no doubt shocked, shocked, that anyone would believe him capable of such a thing.
But, indeed, Mr. Ahmadinejad moved into second place after what appeared to be a wave of last-minute ballot stuffing and voter coercion. That strongly suggested that he is Mr. Khamenei’s candidate.
Mr. Rafsanjani is no moderate, judging from the oppression when he held the presidency from 1989 to 1997. But he is also no favorite of the regime. He once stood above Khamenei in the esteem of that old rascal who established Iran’s clerical dictatorship, Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini. The two are longtime rivals. That aside, he is not the kind of character in whom a supreme leader, or anyone else, would want to put a lot of trust.
Mr. Ahmadinejad is the very antithesis of a moderate. Earlier in his career he was one of the top commanders of the Revolutionary Guard, with a direct hand in silencing opposition to the mullahs and, by some reports, in supporting terrorist activity abroad.
So expect a messy runoff. Mr. Rafsanjani, who has a political base of his own and is himself capable of ballot-box chicanery, will battle the mullahs’ favorite son. The mullahs have a trump card, as they have demonstrated since Khomeini seized power 26 years ago and displayed again last Friday: They control the military and the secret police.
Random reports suggested that those two instruments of coercion were in use last Friday in persuading reluctant voters to make use of that extra four hours of voting time to express their loyalty to the regime. Iranians who don’t have a stamp on their registration card proving they voted can suffer penalties in Iran, including difficulty in getting a passport, a job or a ration card.
So what does all of this mean for the West? If Mr. Rafsanjani should win, he will play diplomatic games with the U.S. and Europe. He will probably be even more skillful than Mr. Khatami has been in stringing along the European triumvirate — Blair, Chirac and Schrِder — that has been trying futilely to talk Iran out of building a nuclear weapon. Yet he is not likely to have either the power or desire to turn the mullahs from their present course.
Mr. Ahmadinejad is a wild card. At 49, he is 21 years younger than Mr. Rafsanjani. Judging from his rambling discourses, he has visions of restoring the Persian empire. “We did not have a revolution in order to have democracy,” he told a wire service in May. He believes that George Bush is “hostile” towards Iran. If he wins, the West would at least have a better idea of where it stands.
The more optimistic reading is that the mullahs have just demonstrated that they are concerned about their grip on power. By cutting moderates some slack with the accession of Mr. Khatami, they allowed expectations of political improvement to arise among Iranians, particularly the nation’s youth. They then chose to suppress those expectations, which only made matters worse from their point of view.
Now, they appear to have decided to return to a hard line, offering no hope of reform or a relaxation of their power over the everyday conduct of ordinary Iranians. Mr. Ahmadinejad is just the man to choose if you want a president who will keep a tight lid on political discontent.
But that could be a mistake, too. Mr. Karroubi’s complaint about the election theft shows that even supposedly loyal politicians have limits on how much high-handedness they will tolerate. Mr. Karroubi’s alleged 5 million votes suggest that he has at least some political following. The other losing candidates had supporters as well. Should former loyalists go into opposition and a defeated Mr. Rafsanjani choose to use his political skills as well, Ayatollah Khamenei might have a problem.
That would not necessarily mean a sudden turn toward genuine democracy. A more likely scenario would be a military coup that would install some equally odious ayatollah. Whatever the future holds, one central fact remains. The regime had to resort to fraud because it is highly unpopular. How long can a government like that survive? Maybe a long time, as Stalin and Mao once proved. But maybe not.