The first step toward understanding the Iranian “elections” is that they weren’t. Elections, that is, at least in our common understanding of the term, namely the people vote and the counters count those votes and so we find out what the people want. That’s not what happens in Iran, where both the candidates and the results are determined well in advance of the casting of ballots. Yes, people get mobilized and go to the polls and mark their ballots and put them in the ballot box. But then Groucho comes into play: “I’ve got ballots. And if you don’t like them, I’ve got other ballots.” So, as usual, candidates (featuring, as usual, the unfortunate Mehdi Karubi, the eternal loser who nonetheless remains at the top of the mullah’s power mountain) complain that ballot boxes disappeared, and new ones magically appeared, and numbers change, and counters are replaced. It’s all part of the ritual.
Which is not to say they weren’t significant. They certainly were. And, as most every news outlet has noticed, they brought bad news to the country’s madcap president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The Iranian electoral ritual doesn’t tell us what the people want; it tells us what the tyrants have decided. This time, the decision had to do with the very intense power struggle going on inside the regime, catalyzed by the recent evidence of the worsening health of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In considerable pain from his cancer, for which he consumes a considerable quantity of opium syrup, Khamenei recently was forced to spend 2-3 days in a Tehran hospital after complaining of a loss of feeling in his feet and breaking out in a cold sweat. His doctors told him several months ago that he was unlikely to survive much past the end of March, and he seems to be more or less on schedule.
Western media, always looking for the next big celebrity, have been fascinated with Ahmadinejad, an outspoken and charismatic leader with a kind of wacky charm, especially when he launches into his Vision Thing: seeing funny blue lights surrounding him at the General Assembly when he spoke there, having prophetic visions of the elimination of the United States from the face of the earth (“Today, it is the United States, Britain, and the Zionist regime which are doomed to disappear as they have moved far away from the teachings of God”), and proclaiming his expert opinion on the errors of thousands of scholars who have documented a Holocaust-that-never-was-but-soon-Allah-willing-will-be.
Fair enough, if I were a big-time editor I’d give him plenty of attention (although I’d point out his curious taste in fashion; the guy dresses like an Israeli! Open collar, never a hint of a tie, never a hat or even a turban…). However I’d be at pains to point out that the position of president of the Islamic Republic doesn’t bestow much in the way of executive power. It’s always gone to a person who can play a largely deceptive role in world affairs. Prior to the current holder, we had Khatami-the-reformer-who-never-reformed-anything, a man who gave politically correct speeches calling for a dialogue among civilizations and whispering soft words to Western intellectuals and diplomats at the same time he ruthlessly purged anything free anywhere in the country, and presided over the murders of students, professors, and other dissidents. That was a period when Iran sought to lull the West into the arms of Morpheus, distracting attention from the real horrors of the regime and its preparations for war against us, including the nuclear program.
With Ahmadinejad, the mullahs bared their fangs to us. Convinced they were winning in Iraq, foreseeing the destruction of Israel, the domination of Lebanon, a jihadist reconquista in Afghanistan and the expansion of their domain into the Horn of Africa, they gave us the face of the unrepentant conqueror. He’s played his role well, and he will continue to play it. Just yesterday he proclaimed that Iran has become “a nuclear power,” leaving us to wonder exactly what that means. Is it the bomb? Or is it a technical advance that will lead to a bomb? Whatever it means, it’s an act of defiance, a reassertion of Iran’s will to prosecute the twenty-seven year old war they have waged against us ever since Khomeini’s seizure of power.
The war policy is not in dispute among the rulers of Iran, whether they call themselves reformers or hard-liners. Nor is the decision to use the iron fist of the regime against any and all advocates of freedom for the Iranian people. What is decidedly at the center of the current fighting within the regime — a fight that has already produced spectacular assassinations, masqueraded as airplane crashes, of a significant number of military commanders, including the commander of the ground forces of the powerful Revolutionary Guards — is the Really Big Question, indeed the only question that really matters: Who will succeed Khamenei?
We don’t yet know the answer, but recent events make it pretty clear that it won’t be Ahmadinejad. Khamenei and his cohorts staged a neat political melodrama in two acts to deliver this message. The recent protest on the campus of Amir Kamir University in Tehran was no surprise; Iran is constantly riven by public demonstrations against the regime. The news was not the demonstration, but the amount of attention it received. Why this one and not the scores of others? The answer, I think, is that this protest was covered by the official Iranian media, which made it safe for foreign correspondents to report it. And why did the official media cover it? Because it was the first move in a campaign — culminating in the “election results” — to demystify Ahmadinejad and his messianic allies, one of whom had declared himself a candidate to succeed Khamenei. So Act One was the protest and Act Two was the “election.” Maybe there will be a third act, maybe not.
At the same time, Act One served another function: it helped the thugs in Tehran identify the current student activists. “The Amir Kabir Newsletter,” as reported by the intrepid passionaria of the Iranian-American community, Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi, says that the student demonstrators have gone into hiding, most notably the student who bravely held up the sign “Fascist president, you don’t belong at the polytechnic.” Thoughtlessly, various foreign newspapers published his photograph.
This is a dangerous game for the regime to play, and the repression at Amir Kabir provoked, of all people, Italian Youth and Sports Minister Giovanna Melandri, to call for a demonstration in Rome, supporting the Iranian students. Another demonstration is scheduled for tonight, sponsored by a truly bipartisan group of young people, including Jewish organizations already enraged by the Holocaust Conference.
Alas, there is not a peep from our leaders. Silence from the White House. Silence from the State Department. As Russell Berman rightly intones at Telos, it’s just like before the (1979) revolution — with the difference Western liberals and the left sided with the democratic student movement “before the revolution.” Where are they today?
– Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. He is resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.