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The Iran Election: Curb Your Enthusiasm

Most reporters I know are on tenterhooks today to see what happens in the first round of presidential elections in Iran. The Guardian is reporting a large turnout already, which favors Mir Hussein Moussavi, the candidate of the reformists who’ve been wild in the streets like they were on the cover of old L.A. punk records. That might be the fairest construction for understanding Moussavi. He’s less important for who he is — a well-pedigreed veteran of the 1979 Islamic Revolution — than for the enthusiasm he’s attracted by not being Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom it appears is embarrassing much of Iran by his bellicosity. (Though perhaps not the underclass.) Because it’s assumed that Ahmadinejad’s allies will try to cheat — see, for instance, this report about a religious edict blessing electoral fraud — the more people vote, the stronger the countereffect from Moussavi’s backers will be.

Matt Duss has a good post about how American conservatives, unable to cope with the potential loss of a demagogic Iranian leader who provides a pretext for continued hostility, are suddenly discovering the progressive argument of the past several years that Iran’s president has meager authority to set foreign policy. While I neglected to blog it yesterday, at the Center for a New American Security conference, Nicholas Burns, the Bush administration’s undersecretary of state for political affairs, told conservative op-ed writers they were making a mistake by discounting the potential for change in Iran. President Obama “

It would be a mistake to interpret whatever happens in the Iranian election as a referendum on the United States, because it’s primarily domestic concerns like high unemployment that are driving people out into the streets for Moussavi, as would make sense. What’s more, Moussavi is an old-guard figure who embraces the consensus Iranian position about developing nuclear energy. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said earlier this week that Iran had a right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to enrich uranium for peaceful nuclear energy. That’s a shade further than President Obama has gone, though he said in his Cairo speech that “any nation — including Iran — should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.” But it appeared to reflect a recognition that while the election of Moussavi won’t resolve the nuclear dispute between Iran and the United States, negotiations didn’t have to proceed from absolute positions.

The Obama administration has been more circumspect, not wanting to get in the way of an election that might remove Ahmadinejad and also not wanting to say anything that would foreclose any options if it still has to deal with him. Laura Rozen has a good post on that:

“We are committed to direct diplomacy with whatever government emerges,” a U.S. official said Wednesday on condition of anonymity. The administration is “being tight-lipped on this one,” he acknowledged, noting that some planned interviews on the issue had been shut down out of apparent sensitivity to concerns that Iranian hard-liners could portray them as evidence of U.S. meddling, a sensitive issue in Iran.

Well, mostly. In one diplomatic blunder, Dennis Ross, the non-special-envoy to Iran, co-published a book yesterday that floats the prospect of an attack on Iran:

The authors included a nuanced, 30-page chapter that lays out options for dealing with Iran, which has so far not responded to President Barack Obama‘s overtures for better relations, with elections there coming up on Friday.

“Tougher policies — either militarily or meaningful containment — will be easier to sell internationally and domestically if we have diplomatically tried to resolve our differences with Iran in a serious and credible fashion,” they wrote.

The book was scheduled to be published before Ross went into the administration. But he couldn’t have asked for a publication delay?

*TWI is on Twitter. Please follow us here. *

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