Letter from Herzliya: A Stolen Election Clears the Air
The mass demonstrations against the stolen election in Iran this past June were noble and courageous, but they did not come even close to changing that country’s regime. It may be fashionable to say that this upheaval transformed Iran forever, but it really didn’t—at least not in the way those saying so mean.
And recent events in Iran have had an important effect on Israel’s interests though, again, not necessarily in the way that it seems.
Look at it this way: Before the election, Iran was ruled by a very hard-line Islamist government. In the establishment, however, there were several factions, none truly moderate, but the differences were important nonetheless. Take the issue of wiping Israel off the map. Pretty much all of Iran’s dominant establishment was in favor of it, but some were more likely to try hard to make Israel’s disappearance happen; others merely hoped that the course of history would do it for them.
Before the elections, it was possible to say that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a wild man who went around the world denying that the Holocaust happened and urging confrontation with the West, but that the real power lay in the hands of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was a more sober kind of fellow. Making this distinction was even—and remains—the cornerstone of President Obama’s Iran policy: There were those in the leadership who could be reasoned with in dialogue and might make some deal to trade having nuclear weapons for guarantees that Iran and its interests would be respected by the West.
Yet—and this is the impact of the election and the ensuing crisis—such a distinction no longer makes sense. What has happened is that Khamenei has staked the regime’s future on Ahmadinejad, stealing the election to ensure he remained in office.
Why? Certainly, Khamenei is not afraid of Ahmadinejad. He could easily have rid himself of this obnoxious troublemaker. He could have made a huge public relations gain if he had replaced Ahmadinejad with a smiley-faced, pretend moderate. The United States and European governments would have eagerly embraced the seemingly kinder, gentler Islamic republic.
Moreover, Ahmadinejad’s economic mismanagement was one of the main reasons he was so unpopular. Getting rid of him would have been a gain both at home and abroad.
Indeed, what no doubt happened is that a regime that made the most basic mistake of dictatorships—believing in its own propaganda—got a nasty shock. As the counting of votes began, they realized that it was a landslide victory for the opposition. So big was the vote for the relatively more moderate Mir-Hosein Mousavi Khameneh that merely juggling a few ballot boxes would not work. The election had to be stolen blatantly and big-time.
The opposition was not so moderate, however, that it would have been impossible to make some deal. After all, the regime did this twice before, with immediate past-president Muhammad Khatemi, whose views were no less reformist than the current opposition candidates.
Yet instead, Khamenei not only kept Ahmadinejad but put his own rule and reputation on the line for him. He knew how the world would respond and how Iranians would protest. But he didn’t care.
The reason is this: Khamenei agrees with Ahmadinejad.
This means that Iran’s rulers are not interested in engaging the United States or making some kind of deal. Nor are they motivated by fear over their country’s defenses. On the contrary, they are in full-out expansionist, aggressive mode.
In addition, Khamenei and his colleagues judged that the West would not confront Iran over its nuclear arms project or in response to Ahmadinejad’s extremism. Thus, Tehran has nothing to lose internationally by having the most radical, threat-making president.
And so this is how Iran has changed. Not because the demonstrations undermined the regime or because democracy is on the way. The opposite: The most extreme, hard-line elements are in control and they see no reason to sugarcoat or tone down their views and goals.
For Israel, there seems to be some positive aspect to this situation. The regime now stands exposed as repressive and contrary to the will of most Iranians. Keeping Ahmadinejad, with his strutting and raving, as the government’s most visible figure is a public relations disaster.
But this only makes Israel’s task easier if it has some actual impact on Western and other governments. If and when the United States concludes that Ahmadinejad’s presence and the regime’s behavior make it impossible to negotiate with Iran, Washington will get tougher on sanctions, as well as support some future Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The same applies to European governments. (Even Saudi Arabia is rumored to support an Israeli attack.)
Regarding Western public opinion, it would seems likely that there is a broader understanding of why Israel feels threatened by Iran. Yet the demonstrators in support of Iran’s people were almost 100-percent Iranian immigrants, and even those were small compared to anti-Israel marches in the same cities. At a support march of about 300 people in Strasbourg, France, for example, every participant I saw was of Iranian origin.
Almost never has the double standard regarding Israel and human rights been so blatantly obvious. It was hard not to notice that, despite the evident worldwide sympathy for the demonstrators in Tehran, among Western human rights activists, intellectuals and governments—those so quick to condemn Israel, march to protest its actions and threaten boycotts—there was almost total inactivity.
Within the Middle East itself, the outcome has no doubt horrified most Arab regimes—except Syria, Iran’s ally—in two ways. On the one hand, they are unhappy to see the even more visible emergence of an even more extremist and aggressive Iranian regime. On the other hand, the mass demonstrations made them nervous. Governments like those in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia worry about a bottom-up upheaval in their own countries. Except in their case, they will not be pro-democracy demonstrators but pro-Islamist ones, people whose ideas are closer to that of the Iranian regime than to its domestic opponents.
The I-don’t-care-what-anybody-thinks attitude of the Iranian regime indicates the likelihood that it will be more adventurous in the future. This could mean increased strife fueled by the regimes in Iraq, Lebanon and among the Palestinians.
In this context, the threat of Iran having nuclear weapons is often misunderstood. True, the most horrendous scenario—and the main concern for Israel and its supporters—is the use of a nuclear weapon against Israel, however low the likelihood of this happening.
Yet this is by no means the whole picture. While the world may be indifferent to another mass slaughter of Jews, Western and Arab interests are also threatened by Iran having nuclear weapons.
Consider the following:
- A nuclear-armed Iran will be able to intimidate Arab countries, especially the oil-rich ones such as Saudi Arabia across the Persian Gulf, on a whole range of issues. Remember, Israel can protect itself from Iran, but these countries cannot.
- The same applies to the West. European countries and even the United States would not dare take action that Tehran opposed so strongly that it might use nuclear weapons.
- The price of oil would skyrocket. This would result both from the increased perception of regional instability and because Tehran wants higher prices. Would the Saudis, whose interests dictate lower prices, hold out if Iran waved its nuclear arms?
- Of course, Arab states would run to the United States for protection, but would they feel safe at present in putting their trust in the Obama administration?
- Nuclear weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists. Even without an Iranian government decision to give them, individual officials or lax security could lead to a terrorist attack that would dwarf 9/11.
- Last but certainly not least, tens of thousands of Muslims throughout the Middle East would conclude that Iran’s Islamist regime has shown the way to victory. They will flock to join radical Islamist groups, and the levels of violence and terrorism would rise in every Arab country and in Europe as well.
So what can Israel do about this? The first step is to push harder for meaningful sanctions at the United Nations to try to block Iran’s weapons drive, though this is not expected to work.
A second step, which receives little international attention, is to build an effective antimissile defense. Without going into all of the details, this can certainly keep Israel safe unless Iran has a large arsenal of missiles and launchers, which will take years to develop even after Iran has a small number of bombs.
The final option is an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. This is a longer-term matter than many observers think. Could it succeed? Yes, with a small amount of luck and with or without United States approval. Would the cost be sustainable in terms of the international political developments that would follow? Again, yes.
The key problem with an attack, of course, is that even if successful it would only set the Iranian regime back and not end the threat altogether. So there are no easy options for Israel.
Returning to the election’s upheaval in Iran, though, the ferocity and extremism of the regime was no surprise to Israelis. One can only hope that these events provide a wake-up call for the rest of the world.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal (www.gloria-center.org). His blog is RubinReports (https://rubinreports.blogspot.com). He has written numerous books including The Tragedy of the Middle East (Cambridge University Press) and Paved With Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran (Penguin).