Commentary

Iran: Revolution, Tiananmen, or something else?

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Protests in the streets, angry crowds in numbers not seen since the revolution in 1979, have some people wondering if Iran is on the verge of revolution. But it’s more likely, if the street protests get out of hand, there will be a China-style Tiananmen, with voices crying for reform silenced by gun fire.

The religious authorities that constitute the regime, headed by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will move quickly to avoid either outcome. Survival of the regime is always the first priority, and they will consolidate their power.

The Iranian presidential elections of 2009 will not soon be forgotten, however. The depth and passion of support for the reform candidate, Mir Hussein Mousavi, has exceeded anything other reform movements have seen. It was very unusual for the Guardian Council, which oversees elections, to agree to a partial recount in the disputed vote. But it is highly unlikely that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will end up anything other than president of the Islamic republic for another term.

We may never know how much, if any, fraud was involved in the election results. The nationalist-populist Ahmadinejad certainly has his following.

The question the West is asking is: Will Iran emerge from this election more or less willing now to accept President Obama’s offer of negotiations without pre-conditions, which was the big change from Bush administration’s approach. Ahmadinejad will have a legitimacy problem, both at home and abroad, given the doubt cast on the vote, but it is highly unlikely that the Iranian opposition’s calls for an annulment of the vote and new elections will be heeded.

Clearly the outcome is a big disappointment for the Obama administration. Hints had been coming out of Iran that, after the election, the climate for dialogue with the West would improve. With Ahmadinejad still in power this may not come to pass. But Obama’s offer was made with Ahmadinejad as president, and his reelection has not changed the reasoning behind that policy.

When all is said and done, if Ayatollah Khamenei doesn’t want improved relations with the West there won’t be any, no matter who won the presidential election. But the reverse is also true.

President Obama has handled the election results skillfully, showing appreciation for those crying for democracy in the streets, upholding what America stands for, but at the same time saying, firmly, that it is up to the Iranians to choose their leaders. No doubt Ahmadinejad would love to be able to say he is standing up for Iran against American interference. Iran is so steeped in grievances against American interference — from the coup to save the Shah in the 1950s, to the aid to Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, to the “axis of evil" rhetoric of George W. Bush. But Obama is not giving Ahmadinejad the chance to play the Great Satan card.

Despite the history and setbacks, there are good reasons for Iran to want a better relationship with the West, and nobody said Obama’s open door policy would be easy. There will always be setbacks as the initiative goes forward. Iranians, like people everywhere, are made nervous by change, and Obama represents change. There will be always those who prefer the devil they knew.

Ultimately, the big question is whether Iran will refrain from obtaining nuclear weapons. The consensus of American intelligence a couple of years ago was that Iran had a nuclear bomb program, but had given it up. Clearly Iran wants the capability to have a nuclear weapon, but may not be ready to step over the threshold, which could cause an arms race in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and perhaps Turkey demanding their own bombs. There is also the threat of an Israeli attack.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that the West’s demand that Iran give up enriching uranium is not going to work. And no matter who might have won last weekend’s presidential election, there is a consensus in Iran that the nuclear program is legitimate under the non-proliferation treaty, and that it should go forward.

Sen. John Kerry, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is arguing that the Bush administration’s position on no enrichment of uranium was “ridiculous” because it seemed so unreasonable to people. “It was bombastic diplomacy. It wasted energy. It sort of hardened the lines …” Iran “has a right to peaceful enrichment in that purpose,” he told the Financial Times.

The idea that Iran could never have even the knowledge of a nuclear bomb was not a sustainable policy. It would be better now to hold Iran to its word, that it does not desire weapons by convincing them that they do not need them.

The 2009 election showed, as never before, a deep unhappiness within the Iranian population, however, and one way or another the ayatollahs must take that into account. It was being said, by those who wanted a different election outcome, that Iran would never be the same. They still might be right, even though the forces of reform lost this one. But America’s position is, and should be, that if regime change comes it will come because the Iranian people want it, not the United States.

Click here for an overview of GlobalPost's coverage of Iran's election.