Adrian Hamilton: An election that bodes ill for Iranians more than the West

Once again the West is caught between its interests and its principles
Click to follow

This is not a good moment for Iran. It is certainly not a good time for those within who hoped for the liberalisation of Iranian Society. And it is clearly not a good time for those who looked to a day when a more open-minded US President might encourage the country to come out of its isolation, stop its nuclear activities and embrace the world.

But then this is no time either to impose on Iran the wishful thinking of an outside world that would have the election that they wanted it to be rather than the unpredictable, complex mix of openness and oppression that Iran's democracy actually consists of.

The last time a presidential candidate got such a sweeping victory in an Iranian election, it should be recalled, was in 1997, when it was actually a reformist, Mohammad Khatami, who was elected to the post by more than 70 per cent of the vote. Like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this time, he was re-elected four years later by an even larger majority, only to be rendered powerless in his final years in office by the authority of the conservative clerics and the Supreme Ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Is the latest election then part of a pattern in which the liberals are occasionally allowed their voice but never allowed to threaten the system? It's what the reformists, and western observers, certainly believe after an election in which the results seemed far too of a kind to be believable and the consequent clampdown on demonstrations too pre-organised to be anything other than a deliberate act of anti-democratic suppression.

If the efficacy of democracy lies in its ability to incorporate dissenting opinion by giving it a part in the process, then this election has clearly failed the test. Whether the counting was actually rigged or not – and one should remember that Ahmadinejad is not just some Soviet-style party hack put up for the job but a populist politician with a considerable following of his own among the poor and hard line – the fact that the reformists got such a small share of the vote leaves them and their supporters gravely disabused with the system. There was too much energy in the campaign, too much interest in the debates for Ayatollah Khamenei to say now that the reforming parties should quietly go away and accept the "verdict of the majority".

Which is one reason why the forces against liberalisation – the Revolutionary Guard, the pro-Ahmadinejad groupings and the theocratic state – may have reacted so strongly against the reformers. You don't need to believe in an anti-democratic coup by the hardliners to recognise that the powers were unsettled by the pressures released in this campaign. Just as in China, there is nothing that the top rulers fear as much as direct clashes of views and interests.

That does not mean that the world at large is facing a more hostile or a more implacable country than it did before. President Ahmadinejad's continuance as president will certainly colour the rhetoric of relations, while internal dissensions may delay external initiatives. But the policy towards nuclear development and the responses to Obama's proferred hand of friendship are not made by the President of Iran, but the Ayatollah and his advisors. Hossein Mousavi's election might have opened up new possibilities of international openness, but it would not have changed Iran's nuclear policy any more than the reverse is true of Ahmadinejad's re-election.

It is within Iran itself that the presidential elections bodes ill. Ahmadinejad and his supporters are no friends to free speech and tolerance. Under his presidency the country has become more oppressive of the individual and more incompetent in terms of economic management. The toll of a policy that has blocked investment, held back development, restricted markets and failed to develop its resources is heavy and will get heavier, unless there is a real change approach at the top.

A decade ago, the reformers thought they had ushered in a new dawn with Khatami only to become bitterly disillusioned and introverted. Iran is changing. Demographics, education, communication are seeing to that. It may prove different this time. The momentum for change, once released, may be unstoppable, as it was in Eastern Europe 20 years ago.But we should know by now from Burma and North Korea that it doesn't happen nearly as quickly or bloodlessly as the fall of communism had led us to believe.

So once again the West is caught between its principles and its interests. Its principles may demand it call foul in Iran. Its interests tell it to hold back and deal with whoever is in power. It would be wise to do so. All the hopes and expressions of support from the outside world did no good to the reformers on this occasion. Nor are they likely to in its aftermath.