"A lot of us don’t know where Iran is going,” said Farideh Farhi, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and former scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. But she added that the events of the last three weeks represent “the most significant incident in the 30-year history of the republic.”
None of the four panelists featured at the Wilson Center’s June 30 event “The Iranian Presidential Elections: What Do They Tell Us?”
seemed sure what would happen to Iran after the June 12 elections, but they all weighed in on how the political situation emerged and how the rest of the world is responding.
The questionable election results that prompted protests in Tehran and beyond were the result of miscalculations by both the ruling leaders in Iran and their opposition, said Farhi, who admitted her opinion that the results were “totally cooked.”
On the one hand, she said, reformist leaders assumed their candidate, Mir Hossein Musavi, could not mobilize a critical mass of voters or secure a majority even if he did. When street rallies began to hint at greater participation in this year’s election, leaders mismanaged and confused their political strategies rather than presenting a united platform.
On the other hand, Iran’s ruling class didn’t bother to recalculate incumbent President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s planned two-thirds majority to reflect the late surge in opposition support. The large victory margin, intended to stifle any appearance of internal political divisions in Iran, instead caused more Iranians to believe the election was rigged, she said.
“On June 11, I was marveling at the fact that Iran had come a long way since 1979,” Farhi said. “By June 13, and continuing today, it’s clear this century-long yearning [for a more responsive government] has yet again not been fulfilled. The reaction to what has happened suggests there’s still a long way to go.”
"The Washington Post" correspondent Robin Wright agreed that a fundamental shift has taken place in the political culture of Iran, even if leaders succeed in suppressing protests for a while. “I think the genie is out of the bottle,” she said. “It’s impossible to put back. It may be repressed for a long time.”
Global economics author Fariborz Ghadar placed the current political unrest in Iran within an economic context.
He described the dominance of state-owned and state-subsidized industry and the effect of a 40-45 percent misery index (unemployment plus inflation) on Iranians’ outlook on their future. The power struggle among Ahmadinejad, backed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the opposition, supported by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, rests largely on who will control Iran’s substantial oil revenues.
Ghadar also dismissed the idea that additional economic sanctions on Iran could effect any change in leaders’ behavior. In addition to placing financial pressure on Iranian citizens, he said existing sanctions increase Europe’s reliance on gas from Russia and have negative economic results for Turkey, Pakistan, and India as well.
“I think the sanctions hurt the Iranian people, no question about that,” he said. “I don’t think it affects the Iranian regime.”
Emile El-Hokayem, political editor for the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper "The National," offered insight into how Iran’s Arab neighbors are likely viewing the political unrest.
“Many in the Arab world were happy Ahmadinejad won,” he said. In addition to being wary of Iran’s political strength in the region, other Gulf states worry about relations between the United States and Iran, which would likely improve under a Musavi presidency. “[They] see the U.S. overture to Iran complicated by what has happened,” he said.
But not everyone in the Arab world is relieved to see Iran’s government under fire. El-Hokayem pointed out that the unrest is detrimental to radical religious factions such as Hizballah in Lebanon, which views Iran’s Islamist Republic as a model for its ideal state.
“Iran’s allies in the region must have been a little confused by what they saw in the streets of Tehran,” he said, adding that if Lebanon’s June elections had been held after Iran’s, Hizballah’s political influence likely would have weakened further.
-- Laura Thompson