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The Tehran Test

Author: CFR.org Staff
June 16, 2009

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The Iranian Guardian Council's announcement that it would consider a partial vote recount, following mass protests in Tehran in which several demonstrators were killed (FT), has kicked off speculation about what the fallout of the country's disputed presidential vote will mean for†Iranian politics. Iran's moderate opposition has hotly disputed the government's initial claim that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the vote. But the BBC says talk of a potential recount hasn't much cooled tensions. The Iranian government has refused to void the election.

Iran expert Gary Sick, in a new interview with CFR, says the turmoil in the aftermath of the vote will complicate U.S. efforts to engage Tehran, but says†working toward engagement remains the right goal. Sick also says Washington should be careful what it says about the vote: "No matter what was said or done by the administration, it would be interpreted as intervention and would actually undercut severely the position of the reformists as they would be tagged as 'tools of the West.'"

U.S. President Barack Obama has echoed much the same point. Obama said he is "deeply troubled" by the violence in Iran, but has kept relatively mum about the vote itself, saying that he intends to respect Iran's sovereignty and wants "to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran," saying sometimes the United States "can be a handy political football." Obama reportedly moved his administration's point man on Iran, Dennis Ross, to the White House, granting him what the Washington Post says appears to be an expanded diplomatic portfolio. Obama has faced criticism (Washington Independent) from House Republicans for not chastising Iran more directly.

But as NYU's Arang Keshavarzian tells CFR, events are changing so quickly in Iran that it's difficult to tell who is calling the shots. Waiting until the dust settles is a prudent strategy, he says. "One of the questions is how much Ahmadinejad is in the forefront and [Supreme Leader] Khamenei is following him, and how much it's the other way around," says Keshavarzian, an Associate Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies who was in Tehran for the immediate aftermath of the vote. "Some of these events in the past few days suggest that it may in fact be Khamenei who is reluctantly following Ahmadinejad's lead, rather than the other way around. However, this is difficult to tell."

Additional Analysis:

  • The New York Times says in a news analysis that fissures may be emerging in the authority of Iran's Supreme Leader, though few think his hold on power is at risk in the short run.
  • Barbara Slavin, a veteran reporter covering diplomatic issues, echoes this point in an analysis in the Washington Times, arguing that Iran's governing regime, including the Supreme Leader, appears "diminished in stature" following the vote and the ensuing protests.
  • An op-ed by two pollsters in the Washington Post says that counter to what most of the Western press has been saying, Iran's reported results may in fact closely approximate the opinion of the Iranian voting public.
  • A new analysis from the Economist disputes this point, saying the scale of Ahmadinejad's reported triumph is unconvincing. (Gary Langer, ABC News' director of polling, also questions the pollsters' assessment).

Background:

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