LOPEZ: Did we see an actual honest election in Iran? Will we ever know if former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi won?
RUBIN: The Islamic Republic is not a democracy and has never been a democracy. It holds elections, but only fools and Richard Armitage call the ayatollah's regime a democracy. There is a long history of election fraud. Indeed, in 2005, then Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad only gained enough votes to slip through into the second round after the regime hierarchy tinkered with the results.
We will never know the true results. Iranian statistics are often fictional; this is certainly true for election participation. Too often, the New York Times will simply take the Iranian government's statistics as fact. This is one of the reasons why it's so important to continue civil society and democracy funding for Iran. For example, if we funded an independent Iranian election-monitoring organization, we could both compare official Iranian statistics with that of the independent monitors. If Iranian democracy advocates are bold enough to build civil society in the face of government oppression, we shouldn't second guess their courage.
LOPEZ: Are there people on other portions of the web today who think it's just like 2000 in Florida?
RUBIN: A lot of pundits are making silly analogies comparing Iran's elections to those in the United States. Laura Secor, a left-of-center pundit, makes a similar analogy in The New Republic, for example, comparing this year's election in Iran to the U.S. election in 2004. The worst thing an analyst can do, however, is engage in projection and assume that politics in countries like Iran are like those in America. Look, Iranian culture is amazing. And Iranians are warm, generally cosmopolitan, and wonderful. I had the pleasure of visiting the Islamic Republic twice as a student, and it was absolutely fantastic. But the Iranians I would meet on the street had no say in their governance, any more than the ordinary Afghans I met in Kabul and Qandahar in March 2000 had any influence over the Taliban. This is where Fareed Zakaria is so ridiculous when he writes about Iran. In countries like Iran, it's the guys with the guns that matter in policy. The ordinary citizens are the victims.
The Islamic Republic is not the United States. We do not disqualify 99 percent of candidates. We do not have a Supreme Leader. We do not have a Revolutionary Guard that intervenes in elections. Barbara Slavin and Robin Wright used to describe Ahmadinejad as a "neoconservative." This was equally disingenuous and showed a willingness to allow political bias to trump honest reporting. Ahmadinejad, for example, comes from a faction that dubs itself as the "Principalists," meaning people that go back to the principles of the first years of the Islamic Revolution. Not only are they not a "new" faction in the Iranian context (indeed, they are the oldest faction), but they represent the most socially conservative segments of society. You can pretty much assume that whenever anyone makes a cheap analogy like this, they are letting their own political advocacy trump analysis.
LOPEZ: Seriously though: The way the American media — and the president presented it — you'd think it was like voting in Omaha. Does that do a real disservice to dissenters in Iran? To diplomacy?
RUBIN: Well, it misunderstands the problem and it sets the basis for poor diplomacy. With all due respect to President Obama, not all countries are equal. Projection creates poor analysis, and moral equivalency weakens U.S. national security.
LOPEZ: Is there a serious concern Ahmadinejad is worse now upon reelection?
RUBIN: Well, at the very least we have got to look at Ahmadinejad's nuclear defiance, Holocaust denial, and religious Messianism and recognize that he promotes these policies and views with the full endorsement of the Supreme Leader. Obama has got to start facing reality.
LOPEZ: Should our president be talking to the people of Iran — the rioters — instead of the regime?
RUBIN: He should be. But, he already ceded that ground when, in his Iranian New Year's greeting, he recognized the Islamic Republic's leaders as the legitimate representatives of the Iranian people.
I would certainly hope that Obama and his progressive supporters will stand on principle (as the AFL-CIO did once when facing down Communist tyranny) and support the independent trade union movement in Iran.
LOPEZ: How worried should Israel be?
RUBIN: Very, all the more so because of the rioting. Most analysts do not believe that the Iranian leadership is suicidal and would launch a first strike knowing there would be retaliation. I tend to concur, although I think it is quite arrogant to gamble with the lives of 7 million people. The danger, however, is that if the regime ever collapses under its own weight, the ideologues who would have custody over the nuclear program might decide to launch, figuring both that they're not long for the world anyway and so have nothing to lose, and also assuming that neither Israel nor the West would retaliate against Iran when the perpetrators of the launch were already gone from power.
Obama should be very worried now, that absent any convincing progress on the diplomatic front and with Israel believing itself to face an existential threat, that the conflict could turn kinetic quickly.
LOPEZ: If this White House cared to be advised by you, what would you say?
RUBIN: Well, ironically, I couldn't be any more blacklisted in this administration than I was during the Bush administration.
I would argue two things however: Broadly, we should be mindful of the DIME paradigm: All effective strategies have diplomatic, informational, economic, and military components. We shouldn't sequence our strategy but should engage in our diplomacy at the same time as we bolster economic leverage, reach out to the Iranian people, and align our forces both to contain and pressure Iran, and protect our allies in the Persian Gulf, Caucasus, and Central Asia.
I am not (and have never been) a proponent of bombing the Islamic Republic for two reasons. Firstly, Iranians are fiercely nationalistic. The best thing that ever happened to the Islamic Revolution was Saddam's invasion in 1980, which led Iranians to rally around the flag and enabled Khomeini to consolidate his new order. Secondly, at best bombing would delay, not eliminate Iran's nuclear program. Absent a policy to take advantage of this delay, a kinetic option would in effect kick the can down the road to buy more time for politicians unable to reach a policy consensus. This is an abuse of our men and women in the armed forces. So what would I argue we should do?
The problem in Iran — as evidenced by this election — is that the government is not accountable to the people. As far as the Islamic Republic's leadership is concerned, sovereignty does not rest with the people, but with God. How do we force the government to become accountable and to invest more in schools and factories than in ballistic missiles and nuclear centrifuges? Through independent trade unions. First the Bush administration and now Obama and Biden have ignored the plight of Mansour Osanlou, Iran's Lech Walesa. If independent trade unions grow, however, the Iranian government will be forced to prioritize domestic concerns over foreign adventurism. Perhaps it's not a magic formula, but with the clock counting down to far less palatable options, it would be irresponsible not to try.