EVEN stolen elections have results that matter. The election that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole from the Iranian people last weekend is no exception. Its consequences are almost all bad. If any election is the prelude to conflict, with all the tragedy and terror that entails, this was it.
First, the good news. Huge numbers of ordinary Iranians took serious personal risks to demonstrate their disgust at the demented rhetoric and sterile extremism their President and the mullahs behind him offer them. Everything that was good and decent and brave and creative about Iran was alive with hope in the days before the election, and in the heroic resistance afterwards. Like the Russian and other East European writers under communism, Iranian filmmakers, artists and authors have given us occasional glimpses of the cultural richness that lies behind the bleak wall of official Iranian oppression.
But our hopes for them, and their hopes for themselves, are unlikely to be fulfilled. We have seen this same Iranian courage, these same Iranian hopes, before, especially in the 1999 student demonstrations these events so eerily recall. We are in danger of getting carried away. We could make the same mistake so much of the world (this writer included) made in evaluating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.
The Chinese students then were on fire for democracy. Surely a regime that had no solutions beyond murdering and repressing the best of its people had no future. Surely it was only a matter of time.
Alas, history repeatedly shows us that a dictatorship that doesn't lose its nerve, that remains willing to beat and kill large numbers of its citizens, is very hard to shift. For the real lesson of this election is the absolute brazenness of Ahmadinejad and the mullahs behind him in stealing the election. They may have slightly overplayed their hand and made a tiny tactical retreat, although this is largely a consequence of disunity among the ruling mullahs.
But the underlying electoral fraud is obvious. With an electorate of more than 46million eligible voters and an 85per cent turnout, the Iranian authorities, through some miracle of technology known only to the Islamic revolution, were able within two hours of the poll closing to declare the result. According to the official fantasy, Ahmadinejad won by almost equal margins in almost all parts of the country. He won in his traditional strongholds by the same margins as in his opponents' home towns.
This election marks a very serious evolution in the Iranian dictatorship. In the 90s, when the relative moderate Mohammad Khatami twice won the presidency, the Iranian state was not game to rig the election. Instead it gradually denuded the presidency of its power. Khatami could never effect his mild social reforms, and in foreign policy he projected a moderate face to the world while the real powers in Iran sponsored terrorism and pursued nuclear weapons.
But Iran's power structures have changed under Ahmadinejad. He has drawn a great deal of power to the presidency. The elite military unit the Revolutionary Guard has grown pervasively powerful throughout Iranian society and the economy. Some analysts even see Iran as a quasi military dictatorship. Similarly, it is clear that the alleged distance between the ruling mullahs, whether of the Guardian Council or more generally, and Ahmadinejad has been greatly exaggerated. Ahmadinejad is the president the mullahs wanted.
This is of the greatest importance. Mir Hossein Mousavi is a moderate only by comparison with Ahmadinejad. Mousavi was a key figure in the original Islamic revolution and served for a long time as prime minister under the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He is as committed to the nuclear program as Ahmadinejad. His very modest relative social moderation does not extend as far as allowing women to choose their headdress.
No real moderate, much less a liberal, would have been allowed to run for president.
But Mousavi lacks Ahmadinejad's dedicated, universal extremism and wild rhetoric. The mullahs chose Ahmadinejad's extremism and wild rhetoric. That decision is telling.
The worst thing in responding to an event such as the Iranian election is not to face up to it. The worst example of this, so far, is the anonymous US administration official quoted in The New York Times to the effect that the election result would facilitate negotiations between Washington and Tehran because - get this - Ahmadinejad would feel under pressure to accommodate moderate public opinion. Weasel words such as that give appeasement a bad name.
It is probably a good thing that Barack Obama wants to charm and negotiate Iran out of its nuclear weapons ambitions. But sooner or later Obama will face a moment of truth with Tehran. In one particular respect Ahmadinejad resembles Adolf Hitler. Certainly he is not Hitler's equivalent. He has not committed genocide, nor invaded Poland, nor started a world war. But, like Hitler, he makes extravagantly violent and extreme statements with all apparent conviction which otherwise shrewd heads determine not to take seriously.
But perhaps Ahmadinejad means what he says when he declares that Israel should be wiped off the map. Perhaps when he attends a UN conference on racism and attributes all the problems of the world to US power, and says that US power is controlled by the Jews, he actually believes what he says.
When the dust clears from the protests and the Iranian election result is confirmed, the US will intensify its efforts to talk Iran out of its nukes. If this has not borne real fruit by September or so, there is likely to be a move for very tough financial sanctions against Iran. Sanctions in this case would not be an escalation necessarily leading to military conflict but the most likely way to avoid military conflict.
However, I don't think sanctions will succeed in preventing Iran from getting nukes. Some analysts, desperate to avoid a confrontation with Iran, believe Tehran will be satisfied with a nuclear industry that gives it a break-out capacity. That is the ability to quickly manufacture nuclear weapons if it wants them.
These analysts believe the break-out capacity would produce a condition of strategic ambiguity about Iran's nuclear capabilities that would effectively give Iran the deterrent benefits of nuclear weapons without having to produce them. But history shows us that regimes that crave nukes for reasons of national prestige and the psycho-military benefits they confer, especially paranoid regimes that seek regional dominance, invariably want a full suite of real nukes.
So contemplate that:Ahmadinejad, in all his demented extremism, with a full hand of nukes. Ask yourself just what that means and whether the world should let it happen.