Friday, June 19, 2009

The Ayatollah Speaks; Game, Set, Match?

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has spoken. Last Friday's national election results were not rigged because “the Islamic state would not cheat," he declared. He warned the opposition would be “responsible for bloodshed and chaos” if the protests continued. At least eight citizens have been killed in the demonstrations so far.

The ayatollah is the hammer, the lead mullah, in the Iranian government. His broad powers include ultimate authority over state security. In a sense, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who won re-election in a landslide, is his puppet. Western observers may not like it, but that's the way it is. The Ayatollah said he believed Ahmadinejad’s approach to foreign and social policy was “closer to what it should be” than the other candidates and one former president.

As with many observers knowledgeable in election returns, I find it hard to believe that a national election of 40 million votes cast by hand ballot can be tallied in a matter of a few hours after the last precinct closed. Ahmandinejad won by an 11-million vote margin over three rivals. “Sometimes the difference between two candidates," Khamenei said, “is 100,000, 500,000, 1 million, so at that time there may be some doubts about cheating. But how can 11 million votes be replaced or changed?”

I can count the ways. Transparency is not a strong suit in this election, but alas, it may take months if not years if we ever know.

The ayatollah's sermon was as predictable as a slam dunk although some Iranian experts insist there could be a power play unfolding among the ruling clerics between reformers and the old guard. We may find out Saturday as a group of reformist clerics loyal to the former President Mohammed Khatami planned to demonstrate against the election results. There were conflicting reports about whether they had received official permission.

Of all the news dispatches coming out of Tehran, I found this interview by the Washington Post the most revealing. In it, Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, Ahmandinejad's top political aide, confidant and head of the president's re-election campaign, accused the U.S. for meddling in Iran's election. "I hope in the case of the elections they realize their interference is a mistake, and that they don't repeat this mistake. They'll certainly regret this. They'll have problems reestablishing relations with Iran," he said.

You can bet that Hashemi's comments reflect exactly what Ahmandinejad believes even though he has been silent except for one press conference after the election.

The Post interview was unclear whether Hashemi also was talking about Republican congressional criticism, some calling the Iranian election a fraud, or President Barack Obama's measured comments. Obama has repeatedly denied that the United States is "meddling" and he has been criticized in Washington for not speaking out more forcefully on behalf of the Iranian demonstrators who contend the election was stolen.

But in an interview with CNBC on Tuesday, Obama said that "when you've got 100,000 people who are out on the streets peacefully protesting, and they're having to be scattered through violence and gunshots, what that tells me is the Iranian people are not convinced of the legitimacy of the election. And my hope is that the regime responds not with violence, but with a recognition that the universal principles of peaceful expression and democracy are ones that should be affirmed. "Hashemi seemed to take particular umbrage at Obama's reference to democracy. The United States and some European nations, he said, have "supported the street unrest. They even called it a democratic event."

Offering a long list of achievements by the government, he explained that extensive trips to Iran's remote provinces, an increase in wages and pensions, free health insurance for the poor and the successes in Iran's nuclear and satellite programs had empowered a class ignored by previous governments. He said the opposition, based in Tehran, could not see beyond it.

There's no question Ahmandinejad knows how to push the right buttons in his connection to the masses. One of the platforms he ran in his first campaign for president was as mayor of Tehran he improved garbage collection.

That's the problem with this past election. Garbage in. Garbage out.

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