As Friday’s election in Iran led to charges of voter fraud after incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the landslide winner, Israelis were divided over their preferred outcome.
“There is a debate in Israel,” said Moshe Maoz, a professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“Some people say it’s better that Ahmadinejad is re-elected because then you would have the ugly face of Iran,” he said. “But if [pro-reform candidate Mir Hossein] Mousavi is elected, he has a nice face that might fool the West into tolerating Iran.”
Maoz pointed out that former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who served from 1997 to 2005, “had a nice face and did nothing to change Iran because the person
who controls Iran is the head of the religious council.”
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current supreme leader, initially declared Ahmadinejad the victor in last week’s election. But after a storm of protest followed — punctuated by an illegal street demonstration said to number 100,000 in Teheran Monday in which at least one person was killed and an industrial strike Tuesday — he called upon the powerful Guardian Council to investigate claims of widespread vote rigging.
Another demonstration Tuesday also turned violent , reportedly claiming the lives of at least 20.
Security forces were reportedly seen firing into the crowd Tuesday and observers described the scene at the Iranian capital as the most violent unrest there since the 1978 Islamic revolution. Some police were seen using batons to bat protestors who had pelted them with stones.
Mousavi’s spokesman announced the cancellation of further rallies, fearing for the safety of his supporters.
The protest prompted Iran’s guardian council to announce a partial recount, but it denied Mousuavi’s appeal for new elections. Also on Tuesday, a leading Iranian reformist who had backed Mousavi, former vice president Mohammed Ali Abtahi, was reportedly arrested.
In Israel, Mossad Chief Meir Dagan reportedly told the Knesset Foreign Affairs Commitee that the Iranian demonstrations would soon end, that Khamenei was still very much in control and that Iran would be capable of developing and launching a nuclear bomb by 2014.
Khatemi’s decision to allow the recount was viewed by many as a stunning about-face, but analysts were split over its significance. Some such as Zaki Shalom, who was born in Iraq and is a senior research fellow at the Ben-Gurion Research Center, believe that Khamenei was just stalling for time. Others such as Edlad Pardo, a research fellow at the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace and an expert on Iran, believe Khamenei himself might be in serious trouble.
As the street demonstrations became violent — at least two people were reportedly killed at the beginning of the week — Pardo characterized the situation as “very dangerous.” And he expressed concern that both sides of the election divide had been left humiliated.
“It is very humiliating to the people and also humiliating to the leadership,” he explained.
“It’s like the government is spitting at the people. The government says we will only allow you two or three candidates [for president], and they are not allowed to win.”
The Ayatollah called for the investigation to forestall a possible call for his own replacement, Pardo surmised. He noted that Akbar Hasemi Rafsanjani, who served as president from 1989 to 1997, now serves as chairman of the Assembly of Experts, the body that is charged with electing the supreme leader and could remove Khamenei.
“Khamenei is elected for life, but they could come up with an argument that the Supreme Leader is insane,” Pardo said. “But if the regime is united, no revolution can topple it because they have a lot of power and the Supreme Leader is in control of the army and has a vast network of agents.”
Khamenei “will play it by ear” whether to overturn his declaration of Ahmadinejad as the winner of the election, Pardo said, depending on how much pressure he gets.
“It’s going to be a very dirty war, and it [the winner] depends on who is smarter,” he said of the struggle between supporters of Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. “I can’t tell from so far away, but there is a game. Two or three days ago, there was no game.”
But Arie Kacowicz, a professor in the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University, is not holding his breath rooting for Mousavi to win.
“He was the prime minister in the 1980s and he started the nuclear option,” he said. “So it is more a question of style. I guess at the end of the day, it is an academic question because we play with the idea that it would be interesting if the Iranians had another revolution, this time against the Ayatollah. But I doubt it.”
Despite his misgivings about Mousavi, Kacowicz said he would prefer to see him declared the winner of the presidential election.
“I met in May with a senior German scholar who is an expert on issues of nuclear proliferation and he said that if Ahmadinejad was re-elected, it would be bad news,” Kacowicz said. “He said there was a possibility of a war in the foreseeable future.”
Shalom, however, said he would prefer Ahmadinejad as president even though both he and Moussavi are extremists. He explained that Mousavi “looks like a Western intellectual and puts forth an image of a moderate. But he is an extremist and so many people like myself would prefer Ahmadinejad because he looks to the world as an extremist clown and that is best for us.”
“The worst thing is an enemy who disguises himself as a friend, Shalom said. “He says he wants an accommodation with the West and Israel, but I don’t think he is a friend … and that is what frightens us.”
But although saying that he does not “underestimate the severity of the danger,” Maoz said he does not want to exaggerate it either.
“Here they are comparing Ahmadinejad to Hitler,” he said. “During the Holocaust, Jews were helpless, but today we have the best military. The comparison is very disappointing.”
Pardo of the Truman Institute observed that there already have been criticisms of the Iranian leadership posted on Web sites “that you think are mainstream, so it is penetrating into the fabric of the revolutionary insiders. It’s a delicate game. … Until now there had been behind-the-scenes power games, but now it is out in the open.”
All of this is upsetting to “elements in the Revolutionary Guard who do not like what is going on. They are extremely unhappy. And so there is now a danger to the stability of the regime. Things can get out of control soon. We will see dramatic developments in a week or two. … I’m not optimistic.”
The worst outcome, Pardo said, “is for Iran to become a terrorist organization. Now it is a state, but it can become a gang of people and not be controlled by the country. And if the regime collapses within three years, they are going to blame Israel and shoot missiles at us.”
Such a scenario is a problem for President Barack Obama, who continues to reach out a hand for peaceful dialogue.
“How do you negotiate with evil people who break their own rules?” he asked rhetorically. “To negotiate with this ruthless regime is a mental dissonance. I don’t know how he is going to do it.”
Asked whom Israelis should be supporting in this struggle, Pardo said the election of Ahmadinejad would simply reinforce the perception that Iran is tied to extremism.
“But what is good for Israel is good for the Iranian people and moderates,” he argued. “Let them be happy. It looks like a velvet revolution is happening there, but it won’t work in Iran. They saw what happened in Eastern Europe and they are prepared” to prevent it.
He was referring to the non-violent revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989 that overthrew the Communist government.