Few things leave intelligence agencies (and former intelligence officers) more perplexed than the pressure to predict the outcome of genuine elections. Organizations, military and otherwise, work by purposes, rules, and structures. Individual leaders and decision makers have ideas, interpretations of history and of reality, character traits, and moral flaws. Their actions and choices can, to some degree, be deduced. Much less so with the aggregate preference of erratic large numbers of people; and thus, the 1997 presidential elections in Iran are still remembered as a deep and abiding surprise to those who assumed that the man backed by the establishment in Tehran was bound to win against Mohammad Khatami, the reformist candidate—but the latter won by some 70 percent. True, he could change nothing, and real power (even today, despite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bluster) resides not in the president in Tehran, but with the supreme leader, Ali Khamene’i. But the very fact that most analytical agencies at the time got it wrong left all of them shaking their heads at their own folly.
Thus, we should leave ourselves open, despite the difficulties that the reformists face, to the possibility of an equally surprising outcome in the June 2009 election in Iran. Ahmadinejad himself is trying to leave nothing to chance (or choice), and among other steps, apparently has decided to block access to Facebook in Iran so as to prevent the use of social networks by his rival. In a more familiar mode of action, he is almost constantly on the stump, addressing various audiences and trying to awe them with the scope of his ambitions for Iran. Khamene’i, although clearly unhappy with the government’s economic policy—populist preferences, at the expense of a sound currency—has nevertheless endorsed Ahmadinejad and hinted that the reformists offer Iran the poisonous gift of better relations with the West, which could easily be the prelude to a “velvet revolution” of young people who may threaten the regime. (This is not an unfounded fear, from his perspective.) All of this makes Ahmadinejad the likely winner—but sometimes it is the unlikely that happens.
Whether or not Ahmadinejad himself (as seems likely, at the end of the day) will be there later this summer to respond to America’s—and Europe’s—detailed offer on the nuclear issue, he has already set the basic tone when it comes to the major issues at stake; and on this, he is fully and publicly backed today by Khamene’i. In response to Barack Obama’s extended hand, Ahmadinejad offered yesterday to conduct a public debate between them at the UN: an intellectual High Noon, in which he surely thinks he would be cast as Gary Cooper. This may seem preposterous, but not to anyone who has read closely the text of recent Iranian speeches or noticed how arrogant Iranian conduct has become. At least in the regional context, and apparently well beyond it, the revolutionary regime in Iran now feels it can challenge the U.S. on the core issues; in fact, that it may fall to them to undo the unjust world order constituted back in 1945 by the powers that won World War II. This, no less, is their purpose; and no amount of clever new diplomacy can paper over the chasm between such views and those of Washington and the rest of the West.
Let us go back to what the president of Iran, already mindful of the impending election, said in his infamous speech at the Durban II Conference in Geneva. I do not refer here to the phrase about Israel being the “most cruel and repressive racist regime in Palestine” (yeah, that’s us folks. Remind me to bring my bottle of child’s blood next time)—which led to the honorable walkout by many nations—but rather to an earlier sentence, right at the beginning, about history. It is easy to miss it, unless your inner ear still rings with Adolf Hitler’s warning that if “world Jewry” should again “impose” a war on Germany, this would lead to the extermination (Vernichtung) of the Jews of Europe. Here is how Ahmadinejad put it:
… it did not take long before power grabbers imposed two wars in Europe which also plagued a part of Asia and Africa…. The victorious powers called themselves the conquerors of the world while ignoring or treading upon the rights of other nations by the imposition of oppressive laws and international arrangements [such as the veto power at the UN Security Council]…. Coercion and arrogance is the origin of oppression and wars.
This peroration on behalf of “justice, equality before the law, love [!], and human dignity” turns out to be a bid to redefine the victory over Nazi Germany as a “power grab” (surely by you-know-who) and, in the process, to return to a familiar description of both world wars as the result of a dark conspiracy, not of Hitler’s naked ambitions. What such a mindset means is that Iran—let alone, an Iran with the bomb—will actively pursue the undoing of the existing order. From Saudi Arabia (which fears for the future of Mecca and Medina) to Morocco (which last month threw out the subversive Iranian embassy), this is fast becoming very clear. This is not Israel’s problem alone.