With the Iranian election fiasco that saw President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad win by an unlikely 63 percent, the U.S. government would do well to take a page from its own recent presidential election history.
Allegations still reverberate today that George Bush stole the 2000 election from Al Gore. And no matter how distasteful was that victory, given the events over the last eight years, it was the U.S. Supreme Court that gave Bush the presidency.
The U.S. dealt with that election through rule of law, although how that law was applied remains subject to great debate. It was an internal matter solved for better or for worse by the democratic system. Likewise, the Iranian election of Ahmadinejad, whatever its flaws, is an internal issue that should not be the object of meddling by Western governments.
Iran's ultimate authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has had his own problems in the past with Ahmadinejad, has essentially certified the election. This doesn't give much wriggle room for the West to apply pressure.
Ahmadinejad's policies and nonsensical rhetoric is counterproductive to not only the future of Iran, but to the region. The reformist movement, led at the moment by Mir Hussein Moussavi, is more appealing to the average Iranian on the street for his practicality in dealing with the West and balance between government and Islam.
Certainly Moussavi's house arrest and the ban on reformist street demonstrations are disturbing, and only heighten suspicions that Ahmadinejad's decisive victory may be tainted. And Ahmadinejad seems just a little too cavalier with the whole process to make anyone feel comfortable.
But Vice President Joe Biden pointed out the obvious the other day in a television interview: "There is an awful lot of questions about how this election was run. We are waiting to see. We don't have enough facts to make a firm judgment."
Precisely. The urge is to flail away at a despot rigging elections, but there simply is not enough information. And as clever and street smart as Ahmadinejad is, we may never know. But it shouldn't change the Obama administration strategy to engage Iran. It's the Iranian government and isolating it won't change its attitudes towards Israel or its nuclear ambitions.
But the fundamental issue is that Western intervention on any level could have disastrous consequences. We don't want a repeat of the Hamas election victory in 2006. Hamas was democratically elected to run the Palestinian territories. It was an election, I might add, held at the urging of the Bush administration. When the outcome didn't end with the expected results, the West isolated Hamas. It led to further divisions between Hamas and Fatah, and encouraged a civil war.
Iran wields considerable power in the Middle East. Intervention will destabilize the country, putting its neighbors at risk. If the West encourages intervention of the existing government it only serves the cause of Israel, which wants to divert the world's attention away from the Palestinian issue. Israel wants a weak Iran. It wants intervention in Iran's nuclear ambitions.
But external pressure will only muddy the waters. Change, as Arab leaders have been telling Western nations for decades, must come organically. If indeed the Iranian election was rigged, then the Iranian people will take matters in their own hands. It's unclear today whether there is enough dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad to spark that change at a grassroots level. There is plenty of anger in the streets, but I also saw plenty of pro-government supporters giving interviews on the BBC as well.
We can only wait and see. If Iranians truly feel wronged, this is their moment to act. If Ahmadinejad is here to stay, then the prudent thing for the U.S. government to do is work with him.