Iran's Electoral Choice: Stalin or Gorbachev

The ability of the supreme leader and his loyalists to engage in enough fraud to manipulate the outcome further renders such predictions pointless. An abundant amount of evidence exists to suggest that elements of the regime rigged the polls in 2005 in Ahmadinejad's favor, as the other candidates in that contest including Karoubi asserted. As Ayatollah Khamenei has come just shy of an open endorsement of Ahmadinejad, telling voters not to vote for candidates who would bow to the West, it is reasonable to assume that similar manipulations with a similar outcome will happen this time.

Khamenei and his operatives now have a choice to make, one that will shape relations with the West for the next four years and could decide the fate of their own power. The option Khamenei appears on the surface to have taken is to keep Ahmadinejad in power, hoping to keep Iran in a state of hostility with the West in an attempt to use nationalism to put juice in the regime's dying batteries. This approach would also require the further curbing of freedom and a more violent approach to the protests and fomenters of instability throughout the country, who are becoming louder every day and almost certainly will overthrow the regime absent Tiananmen Square-like measures. The mullahs will have to gamble that such measures will squash the determination of the opposition for the time being without provoking an even worse popular backlash that causes the government's institutions to collapse.

The other option is to allow a candidate like Mousavi to come to power that can introduce reforms that impress the West and appease the population. The hope would be that this candidate could act as a modern-day Gorbachev, only without the whole collapse of the Soviet Union thing. The Iranians, with a more articulate and pleasant-sounding leader, could fracture any coalition seeking to place pressure on the regime and may even be able to convince the West to relax sanctions and provide them with the investment needed for their survival. The infusion of money would allow the regime to recover its lost wealth, and with economic conditions improving, the mullahs would hope that the population's resistance would reduce to a level that doesn't threaten the stability of the country.

This, too, is a gamble, as any increased interaction and business with the West by the population could further motivate and even empower the opposition, and such a change in foreign policy could spark sharp divisions in the government. Liberal political reforms are also risky, as they may give the opposition a louder voice, more freedom to organize, and a feeling of victory and hope that could energize the movement in extraordinary ways. The regime must hope that their increased power is not outpaced by the opposition.

Should Mousavi become Iran's next president, it will be an admission by Khamenei that his regime needs the West to save it. They shouldn't and support for the opposition has a place in whichever policy towards Iran the U.S. enacts in reaction to the election results, whether that is engagement and reward or isolation and punishment. Regardless of the outcome, the regime's mechanisms of oppression, terrorism sponsorship, and extremism promotion will remain. The Revolutionary Guards, the Basiji militia, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the Guardian Council, and Supreme Leader Khamenei will continue to operate. Whether the mullahs decide to go the way of Stalin or Gorbachev, today's evil empire will remain an evil empire.