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June 20, 2005

US Hawks Try Preemptive Strike on Iran Vote

by Jim Lobe

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 of democracy."

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 "Facing 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 would win.

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)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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