Iran’s elections caused two main features of the domestic situation in the country to stand out. One is the undeniably large support for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad among the poor of Iran. The other is the depth of disappointment of the young, educated and urban intelligentsia with his re-election.
This last group feels that long awaited moves toward modernization of Iran and better relations with the outside world have been aborted by the re-election of Ahmadinezhad. How long these people will continue their protests and how effective these demonstrations will be is not clear. It is safe to assume, however, and in view of Iran’s political, social and religious systems, that the popular unrest will not affect the result of this election.
Some analysts believe that what is really happening is a struggle for power between the conservatives, headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinezhad, and the moderates, headed by the previous president Mohammad Khatami and the challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi. Others believe that both Khatami and Mousavi are simply a front for the challenge of Akbar Hashimi Rafsanjani, another former president, who is trying to return to power through Mousavi. Whatever the case, the young and educated Iranians just now protesting in the streets will have to wait another four years to pursue their dreams of modernization, unless the United States or Israel foolishly step in, thereby either consolidating the rule of the religious institutions or turning Iran into another haven for backward and terrorist groups, as in Iraq.
Indeed, the response of the United States and European countries to the results and the re-elected president is more critical than the unstable situation in Tehran. Are these countries going to show the same interest in opening a dialogue with an incumbent returned to power after an election shrouded in controversy? Are they prepared to let down the huge number of liberals who have taken to the streets of Tehran?
Perhaps the muted reaction and the mild official protests by the above-mentioned governments are indicative. They may mean that western governments are neither going to endorse the results nor are they prepared to deal with the elected president. It also means that the West may now see an opportunity to work, unofficially and mainly through the media, to destabilize Iran.
But if this happens, Ahmadinezhad and his administration will escalate their defiance of the US and the West. And this will augur ill for the region in general and Iraq in particular. One of the most efficient ways to counter any US-European attempts to weaken the Iranian regime will be for Iran to challenge the US-European influence and presence in the region. The weakest link, needless to say, is Iraq.
It is a well-known fact that Iranian influence in Iraq is both significant and effective. Iran could easily impair US plans to withdraw from Iraq, or, alternatively, prevail there after a withdrawal. In other words, instead of being weakened and besieged, Iran will expand its influence into Iraq and will complete a physical axis stretching from southern Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Iran. Such a scenario, combined with the continued difficulties the US-European coalition is facing in Afghanistan and Pakistan, would not only endanger the position of the coalition but could also be the end of any presence or influence for any such western coalition in the region in the medium term.
This will clearly bring Israel into the picture again, and western opposition to Israel’s stated desire to carry out air strikes against Iranian nuclear and military targets will wane. This is despite the fact that such action will likely only strengthen the Iranian regime by silencing the opposition.
How prepared the US-European coalition is to risk such a potentially dramatic strategic change is something only the reactions of the US and the European Union will answer. Only the wise decision to not get involved in what is a domestic Iranian matter, and thus leave the Iranian opposition free to continue demonstrating peacefully, will keep the Iranian regime embroiled in its domestic turmoil and thus unable to trouble other regional and international actors.
Such a position will also demonstrate US-European respect for the popular will and democratic choice of a people. The worst option now for the West is to try to impose democracy in the same way it did in Iraq and Afghanistan.