While protests are continuing on the streets of Iran against election results widely regarded as fraudulent, behind the scenes key players are maneuvering for position. The genie may be out of the bottle but there is growing fear that a massive crackdown is days away.
There are plenty of reasons to doubt the announced results of Iran's presidential election. How can nearly 40 million paper ballots be counted in just a few hours? Why is it that challenger Mir Hussein Mousavi did so poorly in his home district and among demographics that he was expected to perform well in? Why did President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad double or triple his votes in areas where conservatives fared poorly last election?
Leading up to the election most polls indicated the outcome would be close. However, no one forecast a nearly 85% turnout. In part, the difference was that millions who did not participate in 2005 in protest to their government became engaged this election. Not because many Iranians considered Mousavi a reformer, rather he was perceived as an acceptable alternative to the failed economic and foreign policies of Ahmadinejad. For many younger and middle class voters it was time for a change.
Social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, have played a crucial role in sharing information and organizing demonstrations for Iranians throughout the world. Pictures and video of protests and police brutality have been uploaded for all to see. This has so fueled tensions that now the Revolutionary Guard has taken steps to shut it down. Meanwhile, the state run media is continuing its regularly scheduled programming.
On Facebook postings from Iranian students there are unconfirmed reports from Jerusalem that Hamas thugs are helping police "crush the protests." There is also a document of uncertain authenticity circulating on the web that purports to show a vastly different outcome to the election. The author is said to be reformist and former minister Ebrahim Amini, and the results have Mousavi winning with more than 19 million votes to Ahmadinejad's nearly 6 million votes.
All of this has placed enormous pressure on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who now seems more human than superhuman. Hours after the polls closed he declared Ahmadinejad's victory as "an historic triumph for Islam." But a couple days later the Supreme Leader, whose word is considered infallible, was offering a partial recount in the face of unprecedented dissent. Meanwhile, behind the scenes former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a billionaire, is working for Khamenei's removal and a better global image while at the same time supporting the mullahs. Divisions and factions are bubbling up and threaten the council's firm grip.
So now the Iranian government has accused the United States of meddling in their internal affairs. President Barack Obama has correctly been careful to walk a fine line in dealing with the crisis because he is likely going to have to deal with Ahmadinejad. Most Republicans are calling for tougher action from Obama, certainly tougher than asking the folks at Twitter to delay shutting down their site briefly for scheduled repairs. But few Americans, let alone the reform minded Iranians, listen to the GOP for advice.
Mousavi, a former Iranian prime minister, is also a conservative hardliner. Should the massive protests end up over turning the election and Mousavi becomes president, Iranian nuclear development is not likely to be stopped. Iran looks at nuclear technology as a symbol of power both within its own country as well as among Arab nations, with whom it has had a long history of tension. But Mousavi may be more open to negotiations on other important issues.
This outcome is most unlikely. If the Governing Council and the Supreme Leader aren't able to get control of their populace soon a Tiananmen Square style crackdown is more likely. Nonetheless, with about half its population under 25, the seeds have been planted for a freer and more open society in Iran. The cork is out of the bottle.