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Excuse Me, Mr. President?

05/25/2011 11:45 am ET

A question for George Bush: where were the Iranians you stand with, those who stand for freedom and democracy, on Friday? They must not have been at polls, for arch-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected the next president of the Islamic Republic in a landslide. Maybe they bought into your idea that the Iranian elections are a sham, or maybe they were too busy buying chadors and long-sleeved shirts in preparation for a return to strict Islamic codes of behavior, but despite some questions of fraud and voter intimidation, Ahmadinejad won with enough of a margin to put to rest the idea that Iranians are ready for regime-change.

After Ahmadinejad’s surprise showing in the first round, the media, both western and Iranian, began to finally pay attention to where his support came from, i.e., the poor neighborhoods in the south of Tehran and other major cities. As the week went by, accusations of large-scale fraud diminished with the discovery that Ahmadinejad truly did command a loyal army of supporters, support that even extended into the middle class. While it is entirely possible that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad squeaked into the runoff with a little help from his friends, the final tally cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Iranian reformists (and western observers) who found it hard to believe that the same people who voted for Khatami twice would now vote for an arch-conservative like Ahmadinejad forgot that the poor and the religious didn’t vote for Khatami for the same reasons they did. The pious poor probably cared less that Khatami was liberalizing society than they did that he was firstly a cleric, and secondly a scrupulously honest one who truly seemed to care about the people, i.e. them. Khatami’s heirs apparent held no such appeal this time around.

So what of U.S. claims that the elections in Iran are a sham? The two main objections to the Iranian presidential elections are that candidates are vetted by an unelected body, and secondly that it doesn’t matter anyway, since ultimate power rests with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Both claims have some merit, but what if all 1000+ candidates who had registered to run had been allowed to by the Guardian Council? Would, say, a female candidate far to the left of Mostafa Moin, someone advocating complete western-style freedoms, have been able to defeat someone like Ahmadinejad? If the wealthier, westernized Iranians were unable to rally behind either Moin first and Rafsanjani second to defeat the candidate they most feared, then I’m afraid the answer is probably no. As for the argument that the elections have no relevance to the balance of power, well, the fact that millions of Iranians believe they do is all that matters. And even those who stand with the U.S. on this, the ones who initially boycotted the election will admit, while pushing their headscarves back a few more inches or adjusting their ties, that President Khatami’s rule has resulted in a much more open society. Their problem is that it isn’t open enough, and some of them want candidates who will deliver a truly western-style democracy. Our problem, of course, is that it doesn’t appear that they are in the majority, or at least not right now.

While Ahmadinejad, along with the rest of the hard-line conservative leadership, make for a very juicy target for the neo-cons who need a real bogeyman to set their gun-sights on, it is important for the rest of America to remember that Iran’s elections weren’t a traditional dictatorship 99%-for-the-rulers affair. If we thought that Iraq was going to be a cakewalk, welcome to Ahmadinejad’s Iran.

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