Iran's Historic Election and Implications on U.S. Policy

On June 12, 2009, Iran witnessed an historic presidential election that brought millions to the polls. Prior to the election, in an unprecedented move, the candidates were given live air time to debate one another on television. In these debates, Iranians witnessed appalling attacks on both President Ahmadinejad and former President Rafsanjani (who remains one of the most powerful clerics in the ruling establishment). These debates unequivocally set the atmosphere for what was to follow the election.

The disputed results brought hundreds of thousands to the streets all over Iran, including Tehran, Mashhad, Tabriz, Zanjan, and Kermanshah. As the street protests mitigated, the rifts within the ruling establishment became more apparent. Rafsanjani and other clerics continue to cast their doubts over the election results while earlier this month a group of former reformist lawmakers called for a probe into the Supreme Leader's qualification to rule. Despite attempts to abrogate the crisis, Iran's divisions remain widespread.

The post-election demonstrations ultimately succeeded in bringing international attention back to Iran's perennial quest for basic freedoms and rights. The overthrow of the Shah in 1979 was as much about freedom and democracy as it was against foreign interference in the country's domestic affairs. The reform movement that has since emerged is completely homegrown and will continue on its quest for change with or without international 'support'. Expressing solidarity with the movement might provide Iran's hardliners with an opportunity to assert that the reformist platform is aligned with international actors, thereby endangering the platform's ability to mobilize a wider range of internal support. Mir Hossein Mousavi himself has stated his rejection of foreign interference in the country's internal affairs, while Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larjiani has repeatedly called on the U.S. government to avoid interference.

The international community should continue to express its condemnation over Iran's 'Show Trials' and human rights violations. Russia's concern over the use of force and the European Union's sustained condemnations are important steps. Sweden's Foreign Minister took it a step further by refusing to congratulate Ahmadinejad while condemning the country's incessant assaults on civil rights. As the international community continues to express its concerns and condemnations, it should simultaneously withhold from expressing solidarity with specific elements in Iran, since overt international support generally causes more harm.

For the U.S., the best option remains to engage the Iranian government in direct talks without preconditions. Iran's internal divisions should not hinder U.S. plans for reconciliation. As Ahmadinejad loses his power grip domestically, he might seek international acceptance by opening up to talks on the nuclear issue. Recent hints of flexibility over the nuclear program, however, might serve to draw attention away from human rights violations. The U.S. should take this opportunity to pursue its regional interests in nuclear non-proliferation, but should not disregard human rights in the process. Once diplomatic ties are established, the U.S. will hold the leverage it needs to persuade the regime to cease its human rights violations, which would then serve as an indirect form of assistance to those who seek reform in Iran. In the long run, a more democratic Iran would irrefutably bring more stability to the region, and for now, engagement remains America's best strategy.