Tomorrow is election day in Iran. I asked our friend, AEI's Iran expert, Michael Rubin some questions about what to watch.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: How real is this election in Iran tomorrow?
MICHAEL RUBIN: In a sense, the elections are real. Fraud is a problem and election tallies are often tinkered with (indeed, this enabled Ahmadinejad to avoid elimination in the first round back in 2005) but this year, four candidates have engaged in a real campaign, and held real debates. That said, the worst thing any analyst can do is engage in projection, and assume that Iranian elections are equivalent to elections elsewhere. In the Islamic Republic, for example, a Council of Guardians determines who can and cannot compete in elections. This year, less than 1 percent of applicants were allowed to compete. Only those that agree with the Supreme Leader can run. An analogy would be if the Soviet Union held elections in the 1970s, but only candidates that espoused the policies of Leonid Brezhnev could compete. In such circumstances, we would hardly call the Soviet Union a democracy.
As a result, Iranian elections are much more about style than about substance. There's a tendency among analysts to amplify differences, but when it comes to key U.S. policy concerns: Iran's nuclear ambitions, violent opposition to the Middle East peace process, and support for terrorism, there are none. Remember, that it was under "pragmatist" President 'Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and "reformist" President Mohammad Khatami that the Islamic Republic not only built up its nuclear capability but also, according to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, experimented with warhead design.
The last thing to remember is that the real power in the Islamic Republic rests with the Office of the Supreme Leader, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and, in the economic sphere, with the Revolutionary Foundations.
LOPEZ: Should we want Ahmadinejad to lose the election this weekend?
RUBIN: The Obama administration tends to conflate advocacy with analysis. They see in the Islamic Republic what they want to see, not what the Iranian leadership's intentions really are. As such, should someone more soft-spoken and less defiant — someone like former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi — win, it would be easier for Obama to believe that Iran really was figuratively unclenching a fist when, in fact, it had it had its other hand hidden under its cloak, grasping a dagger. What Ahmadinjead did was to expose the ideology of the power holders in Iran for what it actually is. Holocaust denial, for example, is nothing new to the Islamic Republic. Both Rafsanjani and Khatami also encourage it. Ahmadinejad's bluntness, however, forced even the Europeans to react.
LOPEZ: Does he disappear if that happens?
RUBIN: No one in the Islamic Republic ever fades away until they die. The Supreme Leader maintains power by balancing factions and personalities against each other. When Rafsanjani got too big for his britches, he magically failed to even win elections to parliament. Likewise, Mousavi disappeared for 20 years, only to re-emerge as Ahmadinejad's strongest challenger.
LOPEZ: Who is Mir-Hussein Mousavi and what kind of president would he make?
RUBIN: As prime minister throughout the Iran-Iraq War, he sought to ease Iran's international isolation; however, he did this without seeking to compromise the Islamic Republic's fundamental policy positions. Behind Mousavi's soft-spoken exterior, he is a fervent revolutionary who purged the universities of Western-educated intellectuals and argued for an invasion of Israel. As president, Mousavi would be the face of the regime. He would not delight in antagonism as Ahmadinejad does, but he would not make the substantive changes to or compromises on policy that any real rapprochement will require. Domestically, he has painted himself as a reformer, promising, for example, to abolish the morality police that harass women showing too much hair and young men dressing in too Western a fashion. But, he really would have no control over security matters and so he would face widespread disgruntlement quickly. We would also see a resurgence of the vigilante groups (I wrote my first book about this phenomenon) who, in a manner analogous to Brown Shirts', would rough up opponents to prevent implementation of policies of which their hardline bosses disapprove.
LOPEZ: What's Rafsanjani's role in this race?
RUBIN: Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad represent two separate polls in Islamic Republic politics. Rafsanjani, likely the wealthiest man in Iran, represents the Islamic Republic elite. Ahmadinejad represents the so-called Principalists (usulgaryan) who seek to revive the spirit and principles of the Revolution's early years. Ahmadinejad has used Rafsanjani as the archetype of the corrupt politician who has perverted the revolution. Even those who may disagree with Ahmadinejad's religious views will find his populism attractive, as many resent the class which Rafsanjani represents for using their positions for personal gain.
LOPEZ: How will the Cedar Revolution from last week's Lebanon election going to effect Iran?
RUBIN: Not much. Some reformists say it highlights Iran's isolation, but Ahmadinejad can argue that he oversaw rapprochement with Arab states, expanded Iranian influence in Africa and South America, was welcomed at Columbia University, and even brought America to the table.
LOPEZ: What's Netanyahu watching for?
RUBIN: There are three different assessments of the Iranian nuclear challenge. Europe looks at the Iranian nuclear challenge in terms of being a threat to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and the efficacy of multilateralism. The United States looks at the Iranian nuclear challenge in terms of strategic tenability. Israel sees a nuclear weapons-capable Islamic Republic as an existential threat. Netanyahu is waiting to see if the United States will act in a serious fashion to deny the Islamic Republic nuclear weapons capability. If he determines that the United States is willing to accommodate Iran, he will act unilaterally, even if he has no good unilateral options.
LOPEZ: How should President Obama respond, whatever happens?
RUBIN: He should judge Iran by its actions, not its words. He should verify, but he should never trust. He should not project, but recognize that the Islamic Republic's strategists do not think like him. He should stop conflating advocacy with analysis.