Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was probably being accurate when he said on State television on Tuesday night that voters, regardless of who they voted for, support the Islamic Republic. U.S. and European reporters and commentators who have little first-hand knowledge of the country have a terrible tendency to interpret events there in very Western ways.
Polling data pulled together by Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty ahead of the elections did not pick up an impending revolution and the pollsters argued in a thoughtful article in the Washington Post on Monday that the “election results in Iran may reflect the will of the Iranian people.” The poll they conducted by phone between May 11 and May 20 had Mahmoud Ahmadinejad enjoying a huge lead over challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi –even among Azeris. Iran, of course, is not just Tehran and too many U.S. commentators seem not to appreciate that the middle-class in Tehran don’t necessarily reflect the majority view.
But how the regime deals with the protests aginst the results is going to be a crucial determining factor in how the Islamic Republic will be viewed in the future by Iranians. In the Ballen/Doherty poll even supporters of Ahmadinejad indicated their hope for change — more democracy, the right to vote for the Supreme Leader, and free and fair elections and a free press were seen as priorities and not just for Mousavi supporters but by those planning to vote for the incumbent president. If those hopes are crushed, even many Ahmadinejad supporters could become disaffected. The authorities are caught between a rock and a hard place: maintain a hardline position and risk widespread disaffection, back down and encourage the opposition to demand more reform.
President Obama has come in for criticism from Republicans for not being out front enough but his approach reflects real maturity and sophistication. If Washington DC starts blasting away with all rhetorical guns blazing more than likely that will help the hardliners by allowing Ahmadinejad to rally patriotic Iranians. After all surely the point is that the protests don’t mark a rejection of the Islamic Republic but a determination by some to purify and modernise it.