Why the Iranian Election Disaster Is Really Bad for Obama

The anti-Iran hawks just got exactly what they wanted.

Not only will they have Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a ranting, Holocaust-denying political villain from central casting, for four more years, they’ll also be able to point to the circumstances of his “reelection”—a rigged vote count enforced by a violent crackdown—as confirmation of everything they’ve been claiming about the nature of the Iranian regime.

It’s true, as the more informed voices in the Iran debate have long reminded us, that the Iranian presidency comes with little actual power and that the nuclear issues that divide the United States and Iran wouldn’t have been resolved simply by Ahmadinejad’s defeat. So, in theory, the dispiriting outcome in Iran shouldn’t deter Barack Obama from his goal of sidelining the hawks and pursuing a diplomatic resolution with the country’s real leaders.

But don’t kid yourself. The ramifications for U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic will be huge. To the American public, Friday’s vote functioned as a test of all of the propaganda they’ve been fed this decade by neoconservative policy makers and opinion leaders pushing for a military confrontation. A ballot-box uprising that toppled Ahmadinejad, the man hawks love to liken to Hitler, would have sapped every dire warning about the Iranian “threat” of its emotional punch.

That, in turn, would have given Obama the domestic political space he badly needs to marginalize his critics and pursue a negotiated settlement on the nuclear issue—and, more broadly, to fundamentally alter the atmosphere of mutual suspicion and hostility that has poisoned relations between the countries since the 1979 revolution.

On Meet the Press on Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden insisted that diplomacy is still in the cards and tried to write Ahmadinejad out of the equation. “Look, if there are talks, it's something that is going to be done with the regime. It's not being done with a single person,” he said.

Logically, he’s right. Ahmadinejad would be irrelevant to any substantive negotiations between the countries; the task would instead fall to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his tight circle of conservative religious confidantes. But such a diplomatic process wouldn’t take place in a vacuum. Domestic politics would play a major role, and this is where Ahmadinejad’s reelection becomes devastating.

It’s important to keep in mind that, more so than on other foreign policy topics, the anti-Iran hawks in American include many Democrats, who are motivated primarily by the perceived threat of Iran to a key ally, Israel. In pushing for diplomacy, then, Obama isn’t just facing skepticism from discredited Bush administration apologists; he’s courting a potential mutiny within his own party. So far, hawkish Democrats have been willing to bite their tongues, with Obama urging them to take a wait-and-see approach in the run-up to Friday’s vote.

But now how will Obama keep them in line?

Hours after Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, Israel was already ramping up its push for a U.S.-led confrontation.

“In light of Tehran's policy, and even more so after Ahmadinejad's re-election, the international community must continue to act uncompromisingly to prevent the nuclearization of Iran,” the country’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, declared.

Israel’s supporters in the U.S. are taking a similar line. “The re-election of Ahmadinejad underscores why the international community must do all it can to deny the Iranian regime the means to carry out its dangerous and destabilizing ambitions,” the American Jewish Committee’s David Harris announced.

In the coming weeks and months, expect to hear more insistently than ever, directly from politicians and media commentators and in television ads, about the urgency of confronting Iran. You can also expect to hear, particularly from Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters, about Obama’s supposed assurance to the Israeli government that he’ll look for other solutions if diplomacy with Iran hasn’t panned out by the end of this year. Congressional Democrats who have been patient with Obama will now come under enormous pressure to abandon him on Iran.

Had Mir Hossein Mousavi, who clearly received the most legitimate votes on Friday (by far), been declared the winner, this wouldn’t be the case. Instead, Obama and his defenders would have had a powerful emotional argument of their own: Democracy is alive in Iran! And the people just rose up against the thug Ahmadinejad! We don’t need to bomb them. We need to talk to them.

This would have been enough to give sympathetic Democrats cover, and to keep skeptical ones in line—and to defeat the “Munich all over again” argument.

There remains a strong, rational argument for resisting the hawks and pursuing diplomacy, even if these latest developments make engagement much more difficult. We’re interpreting what just happened through the lens of nuclear politics, but the Khamenei regime’s election theft is rooted in self-preservation. Iran’s conservative religious leaders saw a massive reformist wave building behind Mousavi and determined to kill it—so emphatically, so violently and so transparently that future reformists would think twice before trying to mobilize the masses. Twenty years ago, the world watched something similar in Tiananmen Square.

The Khamenei regime’s actions this weekend have been despicable in a way words can’t quite describe. And yet, the hawks’ caricature of Iran’s leaders—“a messianic, apocalyptic cult,” in the words of Netanyahu—still doesn’t fit. If anything, we’ve just seen how committed they are to their own survival. A nuclear strike against Israel, a nation already armed with hundreds of nuclear weapons, doesn’t square with their history—which includes ending a bloody and protracted war with Iraq when it began to threaten Iran’s own stability.

But cold, rational arguments rarely win political arguments—particularly when one side gets to invoke the specter of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a mushroom cloud.

In large part because of Ahmadinejad’s vile rhetoric, the debate over Iran in the U.S. has lopsidedly favored the hawks. That could have changed this weekend. Instead, it will now be more one-sided than ever. 

Why the Iranian Election Disaster Is Really Bad for Obama