Following the announcement by Iran's Interior Ministry that incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won reelection in an implausible landslide, hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets with the kind of unbridled political anger that may have the power to escalate into full-blown revolution. The ball is now in the court of the supreme leader, the highest authority in Iran, to avert the ultimate confrontation.
During most of the Islamic Republic's young history, elections have served as a kind of pressure safety valve, releasing discontent into ballot boxes within the framework of contested elections. By voting at rates that would put any U.S. election to shame, the Iranian people, reformists and conservatives alike, gave legitimacy to a system that was otherwise seen as corrupt and undemocratic, since real power always rested with the supreme leader and his close associates.
The shocking results of the June 12 election are a sign that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei feared becoming irrelevant amidst a campaign that both the candidates and the people seemed to be taking far too seriously. Green-clad supporters of leading challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi formed human chains in the streets of Tehran, while Ahmadinejad jettisoned Persian decorum when he called out former president and consummate insider Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on national television, accusing him of corruption. The 2009 presidential election looked less like the charade it was designed to be, and more like an all-or-nothing contest for power.
The supreme leader, however, decided to reestablish his importance in the most clumsy of ways: by handing Ahmadinejad nearly 63% of the vote, a blatantly exaggerated figure, given polling data, and given the groundbreaking 80-85% voter turnout, which by all indications was expected to favor Mousavi -- the change candidate.
To be sure, Khamenei would not be the first Iranian leader to consolidate power in shortsighted fashion. Following the 1953 coup against democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, the last shah of Iran banned all but two handpicked political parties, forcing the opposition to adopt extra-legal and often violent means of confrontation with the monarchy. Peaceful and moderate coalitions like the National Front, which Mossadeq helped found, soon took a back seat to more extremist elements such as the Marxist Fedayeen, the People's Mojahedeen, and Khomeini himself -- groups that could more efficiently navigate the undercurrents of repressed political anger.
It may be too early to tell whether Khamenei has made an error in judgment comparable to that of the shah, and whether the current outrage may lead to a bona fide revolution. The last revolution took over a year of government fumbles and excessive violence before it reached full maturity and toppled the shah. What is foreseeable is that no revolution can take place in Iran without the involvement of particular segments of the society, including the bazaar merchant class, religious institutions, and the working poor, groups that are hardly in the pocket of the regime, despite their social conservative bent.
One sign that the supreme leader may be unwilling to risk further escalation was his decision to have a recount, which was made public on Tuesday. Although the idea was rejected outright by Mousavi, given allegations of destroyed ballots around the country, it could mark the first step toward Khamenei's change of heart. Sooner or later, the supreme leader will realize that abandoning Ahmadinejad will be a safer bet than confronting millions of young Iranians, who as of Saturday morning no longer have a stake in the system they inherited from the 1978-79 revolution.
Moving forward, the supreme leader has two clear choices: Save the fragile legitimacy of the Islamic Republic by calling for new elections, or move toward a system that increasingly looks like a dictatorship, in which all pretensions of popular will are thrown by the wayside. Either choice may be a losing proposition for the Islamic ruling elite in the long run. But what is certain is that a massive confrontation with the people of Iran very seldom benefits those in power, something Khamenei and his fellow revolutionaries from the class of 1979 know all too well.
Nathan Gonzalez, a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project, is author of Engaging Iran: The Rise of a Middle East Powerhouse and America's Strategic Choice.