The notion of an “Obama effect” sweeping the Middle East appeared to collide with the realities of the Islamic Republic of Iran Saturday, as the country’s confrontational, anti-American president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, celebrated a landslide victory in Friday’s election amid wide doubts about the honesty of the official vote count.
Iran’s election authority declared Ahmadinejad the victor with 63 percent of the vote Saturday and his victory received the imprimatur of the country’s supreme religious leader. But his main rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, denounced the results as a “charade” and there were reports of dramatic protests in Tehran Saturday.
Though his backing of Iran’s nuclear program differed little from Ahamdinejad’s, the tone of Mousavi's campaign, and the impression of a broad stirring for change led by the country’s youth, organized online and by text messages, seemed to echo Obama’s own victory and to respond to the promises of engagement in Obama’s recent speech in Cairo.
The White House remained silent Saturday morning as new details of the situation continued to emerge, including a statement from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the most powerful political figure in Iran, praising the conduct of the election, deeming the result a "divine assessment" on state TV, and saying, according to the BBC, that “other honorable candidates must refrain from any kind of provocative and distrustful words or deeds.”
Analysts across the political spectrum – including staunch supporters of Obama’s pledge to engage Iran in respectful negotiations – said that a second Ahmadinejad term seems to dash hopes of a warmer relationship with Tehran and complicate President Obama’s hopes of reaching a deal to stop Iran’s nuclear program by his own deadline of the end of this year. It comes as another target of Obama’s hopes for new engagement, North Korea, is defiantly threatening to test a nuclear weapon, in a dramatic weekend for two countries President George W. Bush placed in an “Axis of Evil.”
“It seems pretty clear at this point that the Iranians have decided to rig this blatantly and unashamedly in favor of Ahmadinejad,” said the Brookings Institution’s Suzanne Maloney, who said that if the incumbent holds on to power without major unrest, Obama will likely hold his nose and continue trying to strike a grand nuclear bargain.
“They have to deal with the Iran they’ve got – and if that’s an administration that has shed any trappings of representative rule then that’s the Iran you have to deal with,” she said.
The election results came after a week of high hopes for Mousavi, who had promised a more conciliatory approach to the West and seemed to be riding a wave of momentum and popular support.
The 67-year old, who served as prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war that spanned the 1980s, is an unlikely leader of a youth movement, but as one of the four candidates allowed to run by the country's religious leadership – which holds the final say in all political and government decisions – he became the symbol for opposition.
While Ahamdinejad is best known in the West for his often bellicose foreign policy statements and fierce defense of the country's nuclear program, the president's powers are largely domestic, and his popularity plummeted as falling oil prices battered Iran's economy. Mousavi, who ran under a green banner that may thought evoked the so-called color revolutions of the past decade in post-communist nations, promised to reform what he called an "alms-based economy," and to disband the "Moral Police" and improve the treatment of women under the law.
The dubious official result of the Iranian elections appeared to be a reminder that in most of the Middle East, the citizens’ aspirations don’t set the policies of their leaders.
In symbolism that will be particularly resonant for Obama’s American supporters, the Iranian regime reportedly shut down text messaging services and opposition websites on election day, and internet connections nationwide were running at sub-dial-up speeds. And the result leaves Obama with the renewed choice of a more difficult engagement with an even more discredited Ahmadinejad; or a return to the policies of isolation that the American president has denounced.
American observers from Obama on down appeared to see great potential in Mousavi’s ascension, and to see signs of a broad regional shift that began with the election of a pro-American government in Lebanon last month.
“After the speech that I made in Cairo, we tried to send a clear message that we think there's the possibility of change, and, you know, ultimately the election is for the Iranians to decide,” Obama said Friday. "But just as has been true in Lebanon, what can be true in Iran as well, is that you're seeing people looking at new possibilities."
Generally, though, the administration has been cautious not to tout what some in the press have deemed "The Obama Effect" on the region.
Some skeptics of engagement were quick to claim vindication from Ahmadinejad's win.
“The Iranian election results are a slap in the face of those who believed that Iran was built for real dialogue with the free world and would halt its nuclear program,” said Israeli Vice Premier Silvan Shalom, according to the Jerusalem Post.
For foes of engagement, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expect to address Obama’s Mideast policy in a speech Sunday, the election is a clarifying moment.
“It’s the iron fist in the iron glove, rather than the iron fist in the velvet glove, which was the Israelis’ worst possible outcome,” said Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former American Mideast negotiator.
But voices in favor of negotiation continued to call for talks, if without illusions.
“Obama has to be Nixonian – he has to figure out how to do an interest-driven deal between iran and the U.S.,” said Steve Clemons, a fellow at the New America Institute, who said the official election margin meant Ahmadinejad and his allies “stole this election too well.”
“You can’t pick and choose the leadership of your rival in these negotiations,” Clemons said. “Obama needs to do a deal with the grossest political leaders in Iran.”
Now, much will depend on whether Ahmadinejad and Khamenei retain their lock on power, or whether a real domestic confrontation develops.
“If you don’t have massive violence and you don’t have an Iranian response from the streets then it seems to me our strategy of engaging will continue regardless of who is their president,” said Miller. “If you get a meltdown in Tehran and violence, then the whole issue of engagement is going to be much more complex.”