The recent runoff election in Iran catapulted the ultra-conservative mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, onto the international stage and set off a blaze of speculation. But while the face of the presidency may have changed, the soul of the regime has not.
From the vantage point of the United States and Israel, the Iranian government remains a repressive autocracy at home and a sponsor of terrorism abroad. It's also a regime they view as close to developing nuclear weapons. With Ahmadinejad as president, Iran's government is now dominated by hard-liners, with the reformists marginalized. This development certainly does not augur well for the future of relations between Iran and the United States and Iran and Israel, or for the cause of freedom within Iran. However, the added problem is that the regime now asserts that the election (with its high turnout) affirms the regime's legitimacy and validates its system of government.
In truth, the election can hardly be called democratic. To begin with, the Council of Guardians, a nonelected body dominated by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, disqualified 1,000 candidates (including all women candidates), narrowing the field to seven selected participants. The general election, marred by charges of intimidation and vote-rigging, then triggered the runoff between Ahmadinejad and former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
This became a contest between uninspiring alternatives. Rafsanjani is a cleric ex-president, who endorsed some social reforms and talks with the West, but who also was seen as representing an endemic culture of corruption. Ahmadinejad promised economic reforms and the eradication of corruption, but also espoused adherence to rigid Islamic tenets.
In the end, economic security trumped social freedom. Now, many fear that Ahmadinejad will "Talibanize" the country. One voter described the election as a choice between "bad and worse," hardly an encouraging democratic outcome.
Ahmadinejad has the record of a zealot. As mayor, he closed fast-food restaurants and ordered city workers to grow beards. He was a founder of the student group that occupied the U.S. Embassy. Some have alleged that Ahmadinejad participated in the hostage taking, a charge he denies.
Regardless of his role in the hostage crisis, there is no mystery about his views on Israel, the United States and Iran's nuclear program, as expressed in recent interviews.
As to Israel, Ahmadinejad spews a familiar putrid rhetoric: "Israel is the biggest threat to peace and security in the Middle East [and] is the reason behind the unstable situation, due to its brutal crimes and daily killings against Palestinians." Regarding the United States, Ahmadinejad seems hardly able to contain his contempt. Vowing to press ahead with Iran's nuclear program, he states: "The Iranian nation is taking the path of progress based on self-reliance. It doesn't need the United States."
Ahmadinejad's dismissive attitude is, sadly, understandable. The Bush administration's credibility has been severely undermined by its false claims that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction. Bush's assertions that Iran is developing nuclear weapons will, as a result, face a higher burden of proof before the United Nations. Further, the morass in Iraq, as well as other factors, limit military options for the United States.
Of overriding concern is that the Bush administration appears to have no coherent policy toward Iran, which has left the United States in the position of barking from the sidelines, while the fundamentalists grow stronger. Even Bush's criticism of the election process may have misfired and actually bolstered voter turnout, another misstep in a long list we could call the Bush "reign of error."
The Bush administration has vacillated between tough talk, veiled military threats and backing European negotiations. At the end of the day, however, the hard-liners are in control, and may have delivered yet another stinging slap to the United States by electing an alleged former hostage-taker as president.
If the Bush administration has had a policy, it has clearly failed. Its only remaining feasible alternative at this point may be the path of concessions and compromise, a course that could strengthen the regime.
As for the people of Iran, the Bush administration offers an empty platitude: "We continue to stand with those who call for greater freedom for the Iranian people."
But what does this mean?
The tragic fact is that during Bush's tenure, the movement for reform and liberty in Iran has waned. If the Bush administration truly wishes to advance freedom, it must actively support elements within Iran that seek change in a democratic and bloodless manner.
While there is proposed legislation in Congress to this end, the money that would be allocated for the effort is paltry, at best. Until there is adequate funding to support U.S. policies that are thoughtful, realistic and consistent, we can expect matters to continue going from bad to worse.
H. David Nahai is a real estate attorney and former chairman of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.