Many Iranians are displaying the courage of despair, in the knowledge that they have been deceived and cheated. They were promised an election for president. The incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a fanatic who has alienated huge sections of the population, and Iranians’ hope was that this election would provide some sort of test of public opinion. Not the independent official that the title seems to describe, the president is responsible for putting into practice the policies of the “supreme leader,” and as such he is hardly more than a public dogsbody. Under the disguise of clerical robes and turbans, the Islamic Republic is a classic example of thugocracy.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, evidently believed that the electoral maneuver could be carried out as usual, according to his sole and uncontested will. He may even believe that he is popular and respected. So an election with the superficial air of a contest was arranged. A field of 475 possible candidates (no women, naturally) was whittled down to Ahmadinejad and three elderly members of the Islamic establishment. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad prepared to coast to victory.
One of the three selected elders, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, quite unexpectedly turned out to be willing and able to criticize Ahmadinejad, and emerged as a figurehead for genuine opposition. Pres. Barack Obama was excited by what he described as “a robust debate,” though this soon enough proved to have no content. Ahmadinejad accused Mousavi of “Hitler-style” smears and falsifications, and of having Zionist links. The Iranian ballot is not secret; voters can be identified and punished. Huge numbers of blank ballot papers were available to the authorities. Suspect Web sites and publications were closed down. Foreign observers were forbidden. So when the votes were counted, Ahmadinejad was found to have about 63 percent, with a majority in every sector — ethnic minorities, women, students, and so on. Mousavi received about 33 percent, and, although he is an Azeri, he was declared to have been outvoted in his own Azeri province, thus confirming the unstoppable zeal of those who had rigged the outcome.
What had happened, Mousavi said, was “a dangerous charade.” Ahmadinejad responded by declaring that he could not guarantee Mousavi’s safety. It is possible that Mousavi will have to pay — perhaps with his freedom or his life — for telling the truth. In their thousands, his supporters have taken to the streets, setting fire to tires and trash. The basij — the regime’s paramilitary forces — are operating as usual in pairs, one driving a motorcycle and the other on the pillion swinging a baton, while their colleagues on foot beat demonstrators and drag them off under arrest. So a country governed according to Islamic principles that supposedly are peaceful by definition proves to be a police state like any other.
Nothing like this has been seen since the shah was overthrown 30 years ago and the Islamic Republic installed. How far repression will go is unforeseeable, but the regime’s misguided manipulation and recourse to violence is a lasting stain. The supreme leader and his president have little choice except to pretend to strength. President Obama should call them on it, lending the opposition his rhetorical support. So far, he has given the impression that he wants the dictatorship to stabilize itself so he can get back to the work of appeasing it. The more Obama extends that hand of his, the likelier the regime is to try to crush its bones.