A familiar clutch of hardline U.S. hawks who led
the march to war against Iraq have tried to carry out yet another preemptive
strike. But this time it wasn't military.
As millions of Iranians prepared to vote for the successor to President Mohammed
Khatami Friday, the group, helped along by a strong denunciation by Bush himself,
mounted what could only be described as an orchestrated public-relations campaign
to discredit the elections even before they took place.
"Today Iran is ruled by men who suppress liberty at home and spread terror
across the world," Bush declared in a statement issued by the White House
Thursday afternoon. "Power is in the hands of an unelected few who have
retained power through an electoral process that ignores the basic requirements
Bush's statements, which were echoed by National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley,
and to a somewhat less categorical extent by Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice, offered some reassurance to the hawks, particularly some prominent neoconservatives
outside the administration who have pressed their own long-standing campaign
for "regime change" in Teheran with growing intensity.
At the same time, however, their own efforts to discredit the election at the
eleventh hour highlight their growing concern that a new president in Iran may
actually be someone with whom, as Margaret Thatcher first observed about incoming
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev 20 years ago, the West might actually be
able to do business.
That concern rose sharply late last month when State Department officials quietly
urged both the Republican Congressional leadership to hold off action on the
Iran Freedom Support Act that would impose new sanctions on Iran pending ongoing
negotiations between the so-called EU-3 Britain, France, and Germany
and Iran over its nuclear program.
"These guys want regime change," said one knowledgeable source who
asked not to be identified, "and they're very worried about anything that
could divert from that. They want to ensure that the White House won't get any
funny ideas about making a deal with a new Iranian government."
Thus, the hawks' mantra Thursday, on the eve of the balloting, was that the
elections won't make any difference because hardline elements led by the unelected
supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Guardian Council,
which did so much to hobble outgoing President Khatami and the reformists, will
continue running the country regardless of who wins.
"Any normal person familiar with the Islamic republic knows that these
are not elections at all," wrote Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise
Institute (AEI) in an article headlined "When
Is an Election Not an Election?" posted on National Review online
(NRO) Thursday morning.
"They are a mise en scene, an entertainment, a comic opera staged
for our benefit. The purpose of the charade, pure and simple, is to deter us
from supporting the forces of democratic revolution in Iran."
That theme was echoed in a series of events and other columns published Thursday,
including one, by Kenneth Timmerman in NRO (and reprinted Friday by the Washington
Times) entitled "Fake
Election, Real Threats" in which he predicted that no more than 5 percent
of eligible voters in Tehran would turn out.
Another appeared in the Washington Times by Nir Boms, vice president
of the new Center for Freedom in the Middle East and previously vice president
of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and Elliott Chodoff entitled
the Iranian Elections," and a third in the New York Times by
AEI vice president Danielle Pletka, entitled "Not
Our Man in Iran," a reference to the front-runner, former President
Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose presumed victory, she wrote, was due to
the "machinations of the mullahs."
Meanwhile, Sen. Sam Brownback, a Christian Right leader close to both hardline
neoconservatives and Iranian-American followers of Reza Pahlavi, the ambitious,
U.S.-based son of the former shah, charged in a floor speech that the elections
were "bogus," while at AEI headquarters across town, a discussion
on the elections featured a presentation by a founder of the Revolutionary Guard
Corps, Mohsen Sazegara of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who
predicted, "No matter who wins the presidential elections, there will be
no real changes in Iran's domestic or foreign policy."
Despite the certainty with which these views were expressed, many U.S.-based
Iran specialists, while agreeing that powers of Khamenei and the Guardian's
Council clearly circumscribed what an elected president could do, said that
the depiction of the election as a sham was simplistic at best, a deliberate
distortion at worst.
Contrary to Pletka's assertion that Rafsanjani was chosen by the mullahs, said
Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University, "Those who are closest
to the actual election process have stated repeatedly that Rafsanjani was seen
as dividing the mullahs and was not-so-subtly opposed in his candidacy by Khamenei."
That view was echoed by Abbas Milani and Michael McFaul, directors of the Project
on Iranian Democracy at the conservative Hoover Institution in California, in
an article in Friday's International
Herald Tribune. Rafsanjani and Khamenei, they wrote, "now are at
each other's political throats," signaling "clear division within
the ruling elite" of the kind that could well presage "the beginning
of political liberalization."
What's more, according to Milani and McFaul, Rafsanjani and Mostafa Moin, a
reformist candidate, have both gone further than Khatami "in challenging
the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and its current leadership" and
in advocating improved relations with the United States.
A close reading of the hawks themselves also disclosed serious inconsistencies.
While insisting, for example, that "millions of 'officially cast' ballots
[were] manufactured weeks ago, to ensure the right guy wins and that enough
votes will have been cast," Ledeen confessed that even he didn't know who
Like Pletka, Ledeen had assumed "that Rafsanjani would walk away with
it." But since Khameini overruled the Guardian Council so that Moin ("a
nasty pseudo-reformer") could join the field, he was no longer so sure.
Moin "might be more convincing as he plays that most difficult role,"
Ledeen went on: "the moderate face of Islamofascism."
To some Iran specialists, such speculation serves only to demonstrate that,
as in the run-up to the war in Iraq, some hardliners are trying to fit the facts
into their preferred policy.
"Michael Ledeen has never been to Iran; he speaks no Persian," said
Brown University Professor William Beeman, who observed the campaign in Teheran
during the past week. "He has minimal credibility in assessing the Iranian
elections, or evaluating the political situation there."
"It is clear that the neocons are desperate to deny any credibility to
the Iranian people in this election by continuing to promulgate the image of
helpless Iranians cowering under tyrannical rule the better to justify
some kind of attack leading to 'regime change,'" said Brown, author of
a forthcoming book, The
"Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States
and Iran Demonize Each Other.
(Inter Press Service)