Allowing a presidential run-off may be the best solution to the current Iranian crisis. Thankfully, the situation has avoided large-scale bloodshed thus far, and the principal leaders seem to want to avert that scenario.
The Iranian presidential election of June 12th has created a stalemate with an increasingly high potential for worsening violence. The key players seem to have backed themselves into a corner: the declared losers want the vote declared null and void while the establishment repeatedly reaffirms the proclaimed outcome. Everyone now suspects that what comes next is what usually happens when people without guns stand up to those with guns.
As it stands now, the current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in his race for re-election with a majority of the vote with opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi coming in second with most of the rest of the vote. Mehdi Karroubi, a former reformist speaker of parliament and Mohsen Rezaei, a former senior commander in the elite revolutionary guards picked up the small remainder. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei nearly immediately declared the incumbent president the winner.
Despite widespread allegations of electoral fraud and other irregularities, there have been concerned denials of a rigged vote. Both sides of the standoff blame the other for any related violence and seem to groping for a peaceful resolution. Ahmadinejad has backed away from his "dust and dirt" remark that inflamed his detractors. Mousavi has assiduously tried to avoid a violent confrontation--nor has he intimated he seeks to overthrow the Islamic Republic.
On one hand, there is no easy way for Mousavi to claim power. Following the rules would not allow it. Ahmadinejad's supporters (a minority of whom are armed basij) would be justifiably incensed. That result would be paramount to a coup d'etat that many of Mousavi's supporters think they are protesting.
On the other hand, Khamenei gave an incalcitrant speech at Friday's Mosque prayers standing firmly behind the election and President Ahmadinejad and dismissing the claims of the other contenders. However, he acknowledged that there might be some irregularities. Even in long-running democratic republics with a history of well-run elections, there are widely-recognized problems. Not only is there is no shame in such an admission, but acknowledging it is another sign of a mature republic. For that much, Khamenei should be commended. He urged those who disagree to make challenges through legal means. Although dismissing the idea that any election issues would change the order of the election result, Khamenei readily acknowledged there could be significant problems but not enough to change Ahmadinejad's win--even before the Guardian Council reports the results of its examination of the election complaints.
Here is a road to a peaceful resolution of the impasse: The three reportedly losing candidates have presented the Iran's electoral watchdog the 12-member Council of Guardians with 646 specific formal complaints of irregularities. Guardian Council Spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei responded by inviting all three candidates disputing the results to meet with the entire council directly this weekend in order to present their case. Since the council's report would not come until after the following meeting, there is good reason to have missed the previously scheduled June 19th run-off. Khamenei could rightfully claim that he did not declare the need for one previously since, he thought, Ahmadinejad had won an outright majority. By declaring a new run-off between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, Khamenei could uphold the law and the will of the council while simultaneously assuaging the protesters.
All Iran needs to move in a new direction is for the Guardian Council to uncover enough questionable votes to cast doubt on Ahmadinejad's absolute majority. If that happens, Khamenei has already laid the groundwork for a new path: Ahmadinejad's win was not sufficient to avoid a run-off. Following the law, there will then be a new election where Ahmadinejad and Mousavi would face off against each other one-on-one. The ruling elite does not need to back down from their claim that Ahmadinejad came in first. No one believes Mousavi got a majority of the vote in the first round of voting. The other two candidates must know that the contest is now between the president and Mousavi.
The ruling elite would then be able to fix the run-off election knowing what the consequences may be (not that anyone has proven that this one was fraudulent). While some might believe Karroubi could have come in second in the first round, I think he would recognized he has been eclipsed in the post-election response by Mousavi. The struggle now is between Mousavi and the current regime. Mousavi himself would be under great pressure to accept such an outcome.
The Iranian people have witnessed a great public debate both before and after the election. No one can claim a monopoly of support. They deserve the opportunity to continue that debate in a formal, legal and peaceful manner. Allowing a second round of voting between the two top challengers is the right solution.
J. Bradley Jansen is the director of the Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights, part of the Liberty and Privacy Network, a Washington DC-based non-profit.