On December 15th there were municipal elections in Iran in which Ahmadinejad and his allies lost heavily. How Ahmadinejad responds to this defeat will be very important to us and the world. There’s basically three ways he could go, he could moderate in response to the electoral slap in the face, pretend it never happened, or realize he needs to move faster before he himself is tossed out. Of course, no one except Ahmadinejad (and maybe not even him) knows which way he is inclined towards. As such we should definitely be watching the country a lot more closely and prepare to pounce at the most opportune time. No, by the way, I don’t think we will by any stretch but anyways.
The first option for Ahmedinejad in response to the election is to tone down his rhetoric and reverse some policies. This is the traditional route in Western democracies. Bill Clinton and George W Bush have both done it after their respective losses in Congressional elections. Although the Strategypage.com article linked to above mentions this as a likely outcome, I don’t think it is. Iran is not in any way shape or form a Western democracy. Ahmadinejad is in no way shape or form a Western democratic style leader. To a demagogue, the rejection of the people only doubles the desire the press on by any means necessary. If the people require a few more eggs must be broken to get to the omelet, then so be it.
I seriously doubt Ahmadinejad is reading up on Burke and Locke right now. Nevertheless, any opening by the Iranian government could allow real deals to be made with Teheran. That is deals that will ultimately undermine the theocracy like allowing trade unions, or a freer press, or the right to protest. The Ayatollahs would be very unlikely to agree, but it would resonate with the Iranian people who have just felt a little empowered by Ahmadinejad stepping back in the face of their votes. Even though the current government in Washington would never press for such deals doesn’t mean we couldn’t or shouldn’t.
Another option that Ahmadinejad could choose is to simply ignore the election results. In this case he’ll simply go on as before regardless of what the Iranian people wish. Nothing much would change if he did so except the growing anger of an already angry populace. This would continue the current muddle that we currently find ourselves. Unlike the other options where Iran makes our decision for us, in this situation we would have an Iranian government just repressive enough to prevent any peaceful subversion, an Iranian people not quite angry enough to take matters into their own hands, and an Iranian government not quite crazy enough for most Westerners to accept the need to take more forceful action against it.
The ultimate problem this poses for policy makers is that any course of action would preclude the other open possibilities. Military or economic action would likely eliminate the subversion option, the subversion option requires no military or economic action, etc. This leaves us simultaneously with the greatest number of options and least amount of will to choose one. Eventually, Ahmadinejad’s time would near an end which would move us to option 3 later rather than sooner.
The third route Ahmadinejad could take in light of the election results would be to accelerate his efforts. When you add to the picture that the Ayatollahs are trying to move up the next presidential election (Dec. 10 story) to get rid of Ahmadinejad as soon as possible, I think this one is entirely plausible though not the most likely. Assuming he actually believes it, he is on a quest to hasten the return of the 12th Imam. The Ayatollahs rule only until the 12th Imam returns, so who are they to stop his return by throwing out Ahmadinejad? While it is no means certain that Ahmadinejad would win a show down with the Ayatollahs, that doesn’t mean he knows that. Even if he does know that he can’t win it doesn’t mean he would simply stand down. It reminds me of a Biblical verse about the devil’s last days on earth before the end times,
“But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with wrath, because he knows that his time is short."
Ahmadinejad could vent his wrath internally or externally. On the internal side he could attempt a coup and/or start a civil war. While his power base may not be as powerful on paper as the Ayataollahs, he could still make it bloody. Should the army stay neutral, the Pasdaran split, and the Basij support Ahmadinejad he would even have a good chance of winning. Should only the Basij support him he would still be in good shape despite its lack of training and weapons. He would have at least 1 million gunmen controlling the countryside against half a million or so not well trained or equipped regular soldiers. This would open too many opportunities to count for us. Especially if the army goes neutral we could support it and the people against both Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollahs. Or we could support the Ayatollahs in exchange for them giving up political power (but keeping their lives and wealth). If all else fails we could let the two sides exhaust each other and then put pressure on the victor to change. Should he start an external war then we can destroy the theocracy with it being clear to the Iranians that we didn’t start or ask for the war. Again this may even come later, when it becomes clear he won’t win the next election (his last one being because turnout was low overall but very high amongst his Basij supporters). Either way, If Ahmadinejad truly wants, as he claims, his “Allahdammerung”, then we’ll eventually have no choice but to give it to him.