The Iranian Circus

Ten days to go to the Iranian “elections.”  Of course Iran doesn’t have elections, as we understand the term.  It has circuses.  Most people don’t bother to vote, since they think–with good reason–that the outcome simply reflects the wishes of the only voter whose opinion matters:  Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.  But even so, the “campaign” is quite lively, and some very unusual things are happening.  Can we read the entrails of the latest dead chicken?


The main attraction, in the center ring, is the debate between Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Mousavi is a former president (back in the eighties) and Ahmadinejad is the current holder.  If you believe the polls (and there is no particular reason to believe them), then the first round, on June 12th, will produce a runoff between these two.  Mousavi is running as a reformer, although he makes a great deal of his closeness to the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, and he has some support from Ahmadinejad’s base, the Revolutionary Guards.  But the interesting, indeed the fascinating thing about Mousavi is the omnipresence of his wife on the stump.  And a few days ago Mousavi called for equal rights for Iranian women.

It’s obvious that Khamenei could put a stop to all that if he wanted to.  One message to Mousavi would suffice.  Ergo, that message hasn’t been delivered.  Why?

It’s a big question, since granting equal rights, or even some semblance of equal rights, to Iranian women would be tantamount to the subversion of the regime itself.  Khomeini was quite explicit on the need to bring the women to heel, to prevent them from teaching boys in school, to cover their hair (which he and his followers believed emitted waves of irresistible sexual energy that would corrupt any and all men), and to limit their rights to precisely half of the men’s.  Of all the threats to the regime, the demand for women’s rights is arguably the most dangerous.  Why, then, would Khamenei tolerate this vigorous campaign, on behalf of Iranian women, conducted in large part by a woman?  After all, the same regime recently cracked down on the women’s movement.


I’ve been asking Iranian friends, and they offer two theories.  The first, which explains everything and therefore nothing, is that it is yet another trick being played on the Iranian people.  The regime wants to identify its enemies, and so Mousavi and his wife are out there luring the unsuspecting opponents into the open, the better to crush them with an iron fist.

If so, the Mousavi candidacy would be similar to that of former president Khatami, who enthused “reformers” only to abandon them when he was elected.  And in that case, Mousavi could be seen as a trick not only on the Iranians, but on the Americans as well, since his election would surely be interpreted as a sign of moderation in Tehran.  It would be taken as a clear sign that the Iranians are ready to deal with the West, thereby buying considerable time for the regime to pretend to negotiate with Obama and his myriad special czars and envoys.  Time enough to complete the atomic project.

That’s the first theory.

The second is that Khamenei has become convinced that the internal situation is so explosive that the regime must be modified, and that Iran must also end its pariah status and achieve better relations with the West.  Mousavi was in favor of such relations when he was in office.  Or, to be more accurate, he and his deputies said they were (the theory was not sufficiently tested to permit a reliable evaluation) in their contacts with the West, specifically with the Reagan Administration (you can read about it in my book, Perilous Statecraft).


If so, the election of Mousavi would demonstrate that Khamenei is now prepared to ease up on the frightful massacre of Iranian dissidents, empower the women, grant greater political expression, and perhaps even to reconsider the crash program to develop atomic bombs.

That’s the second theory.

One of the many things that makes Iran so fascinating is that both theories will be advanced if Mousavi wins the circus, since the evidence will be the same in each case:  the election of Mousavi.

If, however, Ahmadinejad is reelected, it would certainly show that Khamenei believes that the current policies are the right ones, that the Iranian people must be kept in their cage, and that jihad against the West will continue on all fronts.

Is it all a trick, yet another deception from a culture that loves to deceive, or is Iran on the verge of fundamental change?  Who knows?  Only time will tell.

Or not.



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