Iran is seething with political turmoil and the West is aghast. Hopes of a Tehran spring under a moderate new president seemingly have been dashed.
Uncertainty follows too convincing a victory
Iran is seething with political turmoil and the West is aghast. Hopes of a Tehran spring under a moderate new president pledged to explore improved relations with the United States seemingly have been dashed by the apparent landslide victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the populist and polarising incumbent. His disputed triumph was swiftly and emphatically endorsed by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who hailed it as a "divine blessing". He made clear the security forces would brook no protest from dismayed and disbelieving supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist challenger who also declared victory.
But despite issuing a strongly-worded statement that the "dangerous charade" of the official results would shake the pillars of the Islamic republic and threatened "tyranny", Mr Mousavi significantly did not urge his supporters to take to the streets. Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards had already warned ominously that they would crush any revolution by Mr Mousavi's supporters, who feel they were robbed by a palace-style coup.
The state has a firm grip on all levers of repression and coercion. It proved its ability to stuff the democratic genie back into the bottle during the eight-year tenure of Mohammad Khatami, Mr Ahmadinejad's reformist predecessor who helped mastermind Mr Mousavi's unexpectedly dynamic campaign. The turning point of Mr Khatami's presidency came in 1999 when he failed to defend a student uprising ignited by the closure of a reformist newspaper.
The week-long street protests were brutally crushed by security forces. The Obama administration had stressed its commitment to dialogue whatever the outcome of the most fiercely contested elections in the Islamic Republic's 30-year history. But there is little doubt the US president would have preferred to deal with a moderate Iranian counterpart than one Washington views as hostile. Mr Obama is also likely to encounter more domestic opposition to engaging Tehran if many Iranians believe their new government lacks credibility and legitimacy and was installed by fleecing the people of their democratic rights.
Time is of the essence for Washington. Mr Obama is under pressure from Congress, Israel and some Gulf Arab allies to apply tough deadlines for his engagement strategy for fear Tehran is stalling while it surges ahead with its purportedly peaceful nuclear programme. Had there been no accusations of electoral fraud, Washington may even have found it easier to deal with Mr Ahmadinejad because a reformist Iranian president could have been handcuffed by powerful hardline opposition from responding to Mr Obama's overtures.
But some in Washington may now fear that Ayatollah Khamenei's staunch support for Mr Ahmadinejad is a sign that the supreme leader may be much more hardline on the nuclear issue than previously feared. "It doesn't augur well for an early and peaceful settlement of the nuclear dispute," Mark Fitzpatrick at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies said of the election outcome. No one had ruled out Mr Ahmadinejad winning a second-four year term. But few had predicted that the anti-western, Israel-bashing, Holocaust-denying incumbent who has plunged Iran's oil-rich economy into disarray would win outright in the first round - and by such an unlikely landslide.
"I don't think anyone anticipated this level of fraudulence. This was a selection, not an election," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International peace in Washington. "In retrospect it appears this entire campaign was a show: Ayatollah Khamenei wasn't ever going to let Ahmadinejad lose." Expectations were that the huge turnout in Friday's vote would favour Mr Mousavi, who was buoyed by a spectacular and sudden surge of youth-driven support in the last fortnight of a tumultuous campaign. Despite lacking charisma, he had ignited hope among formerly disenchanted reformists that their vote could make a difference.
Ayatollah Khamenei will have rubbed salt into their wounds by portraying the remarkable turnout as a seal of popular legitimacy for the Iranian system. The regime will hope that the huge numbers at Mr Mousavi's joyous campaign rallies reflected more the desire to party than political conviction - and that opposition to the system is far less organised than it was in 1999. Mr Ahmadinejad's aides are likely to argue that - as with his upset election victory four years ago - his critics indulged in wishful thinking and misjudged his man-of-the-people appeal to Iran's pious and poor rural masses which have benefited from his handouts from state coffers. But many Iranians remain deeply sceptical of official figures which showed that Mr Ahmadinejad won strongly even in Mr Mousavi's strongholds.
Mr Ahmadinejad's aides are also likely to argue that he cannily bolstered his support base with his startling, televised accusations of corruption against the influential former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom he accused of being Mr Mousavi's "puppet master". Yet the spectacle of Iranian leaders mudslinging in public will have appalled Ayatollah Khamenei. He will also be deeply unsettled by allegations now that the Islamic system has lost legitimacy by allowing a rigged vote. More disturbing for him may have been the fear that a moderate president such as Mr Mousavi, who pledged greater social freedoms and detente with the West, would unleash forces that could undermine the establishment.
Yet, some analysts argued yesterday, if the regime was determined not to make the same "mistake" with these elections, why did the conservative watchdog that screens candidates for election allow Mr Mousavi to run in the first place? Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, which promotes dialogue to resolve disputes, speculated that Ayatollah Khamenei may have endorsed the controversial election outcome under pressure from powerful circles in the Revolutionary Guards.
If so, Mr Parsi argued, the supreme leader, who is "addicted to the perception of legitimacy for himself and the system", may not enjoy the position of strength usually ascribed to him: "Are we facing a situation in which the bodyguards are more powerful than the emperor?" firstname.lastname@example.org