What are Iranians protesting?

Many Iranians were outraged by the alleged landslide re-election victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad’s prime challenger, charged that the regime had tampered with the ballot count and had stolen the June 12 election from him and the Iranian people. Over time, the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have shifted their focus from protesting the widely-doubted election results to denouncing the legitimacy of the regime itself. Chants of “Death to the dictator” have replaced “Death to America” on Iranian streets. So far, the protests have resulted in at least 17 deaths, hundreds of injuries, and several thousand arrests.

What were the official election results?

The regime claimed that controversial President Ahmadinejad won the election by gaining 62 percent of the vote compared to Mousavi’s 33 percent, with two other challengers Mehdi Karroubi and Mohsen Rezai, splitting the remaining 5 percent.

Why were these official results rejected by most Iranians?

The regime claims that elections officials were able to count by hand 40 million votes in time to announce the results within three hours after polls closed. Not only is this nearly impossible, but the three challengers allegedly lost by wide margins in their home constituencies, which is extremely unlikely. The Guardian Council, which did a partial recount, announced that there had been voting irregularities in 50 districts, including some vote counts that exceeded the number of eligible voters living there. Nevertheless, the Guardian Council came to the questionable conclusion that “there was no major fraud” and that the elections results would stand uncorrected.

Who is Mir Hossein Mousavi?

Mousavi served as Iran’s Prime Minister from 1981 to 1989 and was active in the 1979 Iranian revolution as a close collaborator of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolutionary clerical movement. As prime minister, Mousavi took a hard-line anti-Western posture and was considered part of the leftist or socialist trend within Iran’s revolutionary Shia movement. Before running for the presidency this year, he had been out of the limelight for many years, although he still remained in good standing as part of the old guard of the revolution.

Would Mousavi change Iran’s policies if elected?

Mousavi was very critical of President Ahmadinejad’s confrontational leadership style, mismanagement of the economy, and restriction of social freedoms. He would make a significant difference on domestic issues and set a different tone for the Iranian government, if elected. But there probably would be little substantive change in Iranian foreign policy beyond the moderation of the regime’s rhetoric. Mousavi has indicated there would be little change on Iran’s position on the nuclear issue and it should be noted that Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program began during his term as prime minister in the 1980s. Besides, the most important foreign policy and defense issues are dominated by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and that would not change.

Will the regime be toppled by the Iranian people?

Iran’s clerical dictatorship is unlikely to be swept away merely by popular demonstrations. It is propped up by the police, secret police, internal security forces, Revolutionary Guards, and the paramilitary thugs of the Basij. The regime will not crumble as long as it maintains its internal unity and retains the loyalty of these repressive organizations. Over the longer term, however, the current crisis has exposed deep cracks in the foundations of the regime. Moderate elements, led by former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, have turned against the fiery Ahmadinejad and thrown their support behind Mousavi’s reform movement. This will lead to a tense period of score-settling within the regime that is likely to weaken it and make it more vulnerable to future popular movements.

What happens next?

The killing of ten protesters on June 20th and crackdown by police forces in the major cities has taken the steam out of the anti-government demonstrations. But Mousavi has shown no sign of relenting on his demands for a negation of the election results. His followers are likely to resort to new tactics, such as a general strike, to advance their cause without risking death at the hands of the security forces. Sporadic unrest is likely to continue for at least several weeks in cities and universities. Periodic outbursts of protest probably will erupt at the mourning ceremonies that occur on the third, seventh, and 40th day after the deaths of protesters, according to Shiite tradition.

What is at stake for the United States?

The United States has a long term interest in promoting a freer, genuinely democratic Iran that would not threaten its neighbors, U.S. allies, or Americans. The current government, in addition to repressing its own people, is the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism. It supports insurgents that are killing U.S. troops and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups. The hard-liners that lead Iran are unlikely to moderate their hostile policies or make compromises regarding their radical Islamist agenda, as the current crisis demonstrates. The ultimate U.S. goal should be the toppling of Iran’s brutal dictatorship, not vainly seeking to reach an inherently unsustainable accommodation with it.

What should the U.S do?

The United States must make it clear that it stands with the Iranian people, not with the regime. It should strongly support the right of Iranians to challenge the questionable results of the election, express their political opinions, and reject a dictatorship that continues to repress, intimidate, and kill them. Both houses of Congress have voted to denounce the Iranian government’s crackdown on its own people. But the Obama Administration has muted its criticism of the regime, in order to keep alive its hopes of diplomatically engaging it and negotiating a “grand bargain” that would end the regime’s hostile policies. Unfortunately, this effort is doomed to fail because hostility to the United States, which the regime considers to be the “Great Satan”, is an ideological cornerstone of the Islamic Republic. Moreover, any government that deceives, represses, and kills its own people can not be trusted to abide by any agreement that it makes.