The Mugabe precedent?

Granted, we don’t yet know exactly what happened in the Iranian election, but the question is almost certainly of how much, not whether, fraud occurred (see this great Juan Cole post for some analysis of the, er, irregularities). The vote certainly seems to fall into the “crude and patently contrived” category, which would give it the same qualities as the farce that eventually certified the reelection of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe last year. That Ahmadinejad’s camp had to stoop to the level of a tinpot dictator is revealing, for it demonstrates that he — and more significantly, the Ayatollah and clerics who abetted and hastily certified his stolen victory — is far more interested in maintaining power than in advancing any of the goals for the Iranian people that he claims to support.

Of course, this should not be too surprising. It was very clear that Ahmadinejad very much wished to remain in power, and the cryptic threats he issued toward the end of the campaign, combined with already existing undemocratic processes and the voter intimidation and irregularities that occurred at the polls, made a free and fair election ultimately unlikely. Ayatollah Khamenei had seemed to have tipped his hand to the incumbent (a position that has practically guaranteed victory in Iranian electoral history), and the lingering animosity between the Supreme Leader and opposition candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi, stemming from 1980’s clashes when both were in government, may have had an outsized effect on the result.

But to rig an election in a a way so, again, “patently contrived” as to rival Mr. Mugabe’s? Iran’s leaders are either supremely out-of-touch or chillingly desperate. They’ve certainly observed how various strongmen around the world — Mugabe, Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki, Hugo Chavez, Vladimir Putin — have clung to power recently, and seem to have introduced a similarly reactionary strategy into Iran’s bizarre “managed democracy.”

In the Zimbabwe case, for instance, the United States could have refused to recognize Mugabe’s government and pushed harder to ensure that Morgan Tsvangirai, who almost certainly won even the corrupt election that did occur, by a sizeable margin, was seated as president. There would have been pitfalls to doing so, of course, but with Iran, unlike Zimbabwe, national security concerns make an aggressive democracy promotion project entirely unfeasible and unwise. This is the frustrating thing about other countries’ elections — they are other countries‘. The victims of electoral fraud are chiefly the Iranian people, and they very much know it. Reversing policy and refusing to talk to Iran’s leaders — even illegitimately elected ones — will neither advance U.S. interests nor help Iranians’ democratic desires.