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Too Early to Call

 By Daniel Levy and Amjad Atallah

This piece also appears at Talking Points Memo.


Right now, there are hundreds of thousands of Iranians demonstrating in Tehran, Rasht, Orumiyeh, Zahedan, and Tabriz. The mostly non-violent demonstrations are the largest, and most evocative, of the 1979 revolution against the Shah that Iran has seen. The pictures coming out of Iran are amazing and focus attention on what is really at stake in this conflict - just how much of a Republic is the Islamic Republic of Iran going to be?

We believe this is an existentially important moment for Iran - perhaps the most important one since the Revolution. The odds are always with whoever has control of the army and airwaves. People can be forgiven for already assuming that the hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating today in Tehran will fail in contesting the election results. Perhaps they will. But then again, perhaps they won't. Mir-Hossein Mousavi has a lot of people on his side and we don't just mean the throngs in the street. He was accompanied today in his appearance in Tehran in front of his supporters with former President Mohamed Khatami and the other rival presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi. Even the right wing candidate (to the right of Ahmadinejad), Mohsen Razaee (a former leader of the Revolutionary Guard), has contested the election results. And these aren't necessarily soft touches.... Each was involved in the revolution that brought down the US supported monarchy and still remembers how that went.

Of course, this is not a fight to overthrow the Republic - for many of the demonstrators, this is a fight to save the Republic, such as it were. It is an indicator of a strong level of support in Iran for the system of a constitutional republic, if not with the limitations that have been placed on it. It shows a remarkable politicization of the Iranian middle class that must be causing shudders throughout parts of the Arab world, just as the overthrow of the Shah did almost exactly thirty years ago. If for no other reason, this attempt to demand accountability by those convinced they were denied their vote is supremely admirable. It also shows that while there has been significant trust by masses of Iranians in the system itself (if in fact it is true that over 80% of eligible voters turned in their ballots), it also shows a significant lack of trust in those institutions which head the system.

Frustrating as it is, the United States should avoid getting involved. This is an Iranian fight for Iranian freedoms, and that struggle is noble enough to win our hopes even if we are in no position to affect its outcome.

The Iranian elections and the resulting popular discontent inside Iran have generated some inside the beltway arguments already. Our colleagues at the New America Foundation, Patrick Doherty and Flynt Leverett, in two separate pieces have argued that the elections in Iran were legitimate and that all the evidence leading up to the election showed that the incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was going to win. Flynt and Hillary Mann make the cogent point that the US has to learn to deal with Iran as a state and not individuals and will have to come to grips with addressing the underlying issues on which we disagree, but on which there is general unanimity among Iranian politicians - such as the right to pursue nuclear energy. While we agree with the conclusion - the US has the same general challenges facing it regardless of whether Ahmadinejad or Mousavi is the president - we disagree with the assumption that the elections were fair based on past polling which indicated a plurality, but not a majority, selecting Ahmadinejad.

While we can't be certain, there are some very compelling arguments suggesting that the results as declared by the Iranian interior ministry are flawed. Juan Cole in his blog entry "Stealing the Iranian Elections" provides an excellent summary of those arguments which include the surprisingly low levels of support for Mousavi in his home region of Tabriz, the overall low numbers for Karroubi and Rezaee (especially when compared to Karroubi's numbers in the 2005 elections) and the alleged majority in Tehran for Ahmadinejad. Cole also debunks the class and culture wars argument being made suggesting that the reform movement is really a narrow and elite-based northern Tehran effort. He argues that, whenever tested, its roots have been proven to be socially broader and deeper.

In addition, we ourselves would ask if there were such broad public support for Ahmadinejad, why has there been such a concerted government attempt to shut down media and communications networks? The government isn't acting with the assurance of one that has two-thirds of the public behind it.

The real question for the United States is not to decide on behalf of the Iranians who really got elected, but to prepare for the aftermath. We have a shoddy enough history in interfering in other people's electoral politics without getting involved in this one.

Reuters quotes a retired 61-year-old teacher who gave his name only as Ali who said the rally recalled the 1979 Islamic revolution. "We used to protest against the shah in this street. I'm so sorry that now we have to walk the same street to preserve our rights."

The fact that Iranians are making that march again is a remarkable accomplishment in and of itself - regardless of what happens tomorrow.


Amjad Atallah and Daniel Levy co-direct the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation.


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