Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, attends a news conference as a sign in Persian is seen on top says: “long live my home land” in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, June 14, 2009. Iranian youth opposed to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took to the streets Sunday, setting trash dumpsters and tires on fire, in a second day of clashes triggered by voter fraud claims.
Many in Iran and the West assume that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election was the product of fraud. American Iran expert Flynt Leverett told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the irregularities likely weren’t as bad as in Florida in 2000. Now, the US has to make the regime an offer.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad scored an overwhelming victory in the Iranian presidential elections held on Friday. Are you surprised?
Leverett: No. I would have been surprised if he had lost. The Western media overstated the surge of his main opponent Mir Hossein Mousavi over the last couple of weeks. They missed almost entirely how Ahmadinejad was perceived to have won the television debate, for instance. There was an extraordinary amount of wishful thinking on the part of American and Western policymakers. Unfortunately, that had a strong impact on the media coverage over the past few weeks.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Still many people, including in Washington, have expressed skepticism as to the validity of the results.
Following Friday’s elections in Iran, in which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, the country’s opposition took to the streets. So too did some supporters of Ahmadinejad, such as this one, holding a poster of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem reading: “Our war will culminate with the takeover of Palestine.”
Thousands of supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, hold portraits of the president whilst waving national flags during a rally Valiasr square on June 14, 2009 in Tehran, Iran. Tens of thousands of people have joined a rally in central Tehran to celebrate the re-election of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president won a second four-year term in a landslide election victory on June 12, 2009.
Members of the Iranian hardline volunteer Basij militia enter Tehran’s university where supporters of the Islamic republic’s defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi were protesting against the latest election’s results at Tehran’s University on June 14, 2009. Mousavi, a reformist former prime minister, said he has asked the powerful Guardians Council to cancel the result of the June 12 presidential poll, while urging his supporters to continue peaceful protests.
Mousavi called for his supporters to remain peaceful, but his message was blunted by a government shutdown of opposition Web sites and text messaging systems.
Leverett: I am a little surprised by the margin, too. But that makes me more comfortable about the overall validity of the election. Look at the irregularities Mousavi is citing now: that they ran out of ballot paper in some polling precincts, that they did not keep some polls open long enough. There is no way such things could change the overall outcome which is clearly in favor of Ahmadinejad. If you compare this to the flaws of the presidential election in Florida in 2000, it seems very insignificant.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Nevertheless, are you concerned that we might see more violence in Tehran?
Leverett: It will be interesting to see whether Mousavi will really push the argument that he won — and if he calls his supporters out into the streets. Another big question is whether influential Mousavi supporters such as former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani might be willing to support his claim. But the more important thing is whether American and Western policy makers will believe that argument and not recognize Ahmadinejad’s victory.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do they see it as a setback for their diplomatic outreach efforts to Tehran?
Leverett: They probably think that. But that shows how unrealistic their thinking is. Leaders in Washington and other Western capitals think the current stand-off is primarily about personalities and finding the right personality to deal with. That is not how Iran works — it is a system with multiple power centers. Within this system, the Iranians have a strong consensus on the nuclear issue and on reactions to US offers. Regarding the nuclear program, it does not really matter who won the election. All candidates would have pushed the nuclear program forward. None would agree to suspend the program.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: On the other hand, some argue that Tehran might now be more conciliatory toward the new administration to make up for the fact that the hopes of many Iranians for more democracy at home have been crushed.
Leverett: Again, that reflects the assumption that Ahmadinejad could not have won the election. That is a dangerous assumption. Fact is: Ahmadinejad won. He is even prepared for a dialogue with Washington under the right circumstances, as he stated earlier. But he is empowered now. The other leaders would support him to strike a deal with the US on the nuclear issue as long as it is in Iran’s interest.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: This week, President Barack Obama appeared to claim credit for the “robust dialogue” in Iran by referring to his Cairo speech. Is that kind of public outreach doomed now too?
Leverett: Public diplomacy in that sense is a waste of time. What is going to matter is the substance of your policy. Whether you get a deal or not depends on that substance. If you don’t put substantial offers on the table, all the nice speeches of the president won’t change anything.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So what will Washington do now?
Leverett: They will be paralyzed for a while and maybe focus on the alleged irregularities. In the meantime, Ahmadinejad might pre-empt them by putting out his own proposal on the nuclear program.