- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2005

“The most radical portion of the population with the most dangerous Islamic fundamentalist ideas are now in charge. Bad days to come.” Those words come from Mr. Behi, an Iranian online diarist or Web logger, or blogger.

The Bush administration has been talking about regime change in Iran for some time but the mullahs in Tehran beat him to it. Granted, it was not the change Mr. Bush, or many Iranians, expected.

Last Friday’s presidential election in Iran brought Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a staunch conservative and a supporter and enforcer of strict Islamic traditions, to power. He won with 62 percent of the vote.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s victory over cleric Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a once-conservative-turned-reformer, and two-term president, shatters the hopes of many young Iranians to see more freedom introduced and the easing of restrictions on social norms, including granting greater freedom to women.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s presidency also means a delay in the thawing of the Islamic republic’s relations with the West, particularly with the United States; relations that soured and froze following the 1979 Islamic revolution.

In that context, four questions are worth asking:

(1) What does the conservative victory mean for Iran and the region?

(2) Why did the reformers lose the election?

(3) How does Mr. Ahmadinejad’s victory affect long-term relations with the West, particularly on Iran’s pursuit of its nuclear program?

(4) And, what course, what action should the West, and more specifically the United States, now adopt? Mr. Ahmadinejad has already said Iran will not give up its nuclear energy program.

Indeed, with most of Iran’s population of 68 million under age 25, it was hard to predict the loss of the reformers. “Everyone is in ultimate shock of these unprecedented, unbelievable and horrible results,” wrote Mr. Behi.

The Ahmadinejad victory also means conservatives now control all echelons of government, from the presidency to the military, and of course the Pasdaran-e Inqilab — the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Basij — the volunteers.

Iran now speaks, and thinks, with one voice, one mind and one ideology — that of keeping the spirit of the Islamic revolution alive and moving forward. This is something the mullahs had been unable to accomplish since overthrowing the shah in 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini established the Islamic republic.

Until Mr. Ahmadinejad’s election, most analysts agreed exporting the Islamic revolution had largely failed. And that was not for lack of trying. The only limited successes were in Lebanon’s Shi’ite community. Even there, success was limited.

But with absolute control of all the state’s apparatuses and with a friendly (and fellow Shi’ite) leadership in neighboring Iraq, and Lebanon’s Shi’ite community playing an increasingly important role in domestic (and regional) politics, new horizons are opened for the Islamic republic of Iran.

Reformers lost because many voters felt the reform movement took them nowhere. After an initial uptake, it sputtered, ran out of gas and eventually idled. Add to that internal manipulation, voter fraud and some reported, bullying at polls.

Early warning signs had gone up on a handful of Iranian blogs indicating military and paramilitary groups such as the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij would come out in great numbers to support Mr. Ahmadinejad, as they reportedly did.

Last month “Iranian Truth,” one of the 100,000 Farsi blogs, alerted its readers about “the possible rise of militarism in Iranian politics.” It made reference to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s support in the military and paramilitary groups.

“The victory by Ahmadinejad completes Khamenei’s mission at this phase,” Alireza Jafarzadeh, president of Strategic Policy Consulting, and an Iranian political activist in Washington opposed to the Tehran regime, told United Press International.

“Having Ahmadinejad as Iran’s president for the next four years … will be the start of one of the darkest years in Iran’s contemporary history,” wrote Yaser Kerachian on the blog “Free thoughts on Iran.”

With the media censored and controlled by the government, blogs have become powerful tools of communication in Iran, and experts expect them to continue growing as long as the Iranian government represses freedom of speech.

But not everyone has a negative view of the Ahmadinejad victory. As a result of the election, the Tehran regime will become more unstable. Public opposition against the regime will increase. “The people, especially the young, and the women will increasingly look to regime change as the only solution that they are left with,” said Mr. Jafarzadeh.

Clare Lopez, executive director of the Iran Policy Committee and a former operations officer for the CIA, told UPI: “This election crystallizes the situation. It puts things in black and white. It actually makes it easier. Had Rafsanjani won, talks would have dragged on forever.”

For Iran, the conservative victory will mean stricter measures domestically, with more suppression particularly against women and youth. Internationally, it will probably mean the breakdown of talks between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency over Iran’s nuclear program.

The European Union 3 (Britain, France and Germany), who have been taking the “good cop” approach with Iran while the United States played the “bad cop” on nuclear negotiations, will have to reassess its position and join the U.S. in a tougher policy. Both Europe and the United States are likely to start applying more pressure on Tehran. They will likely waste no time in referring Iran’s nuclear dossier to the U.N. Security Council.

Jafarzadeh also believes the new government in Iran will step up support for terrorist groups around the world, and increase its “meddling in Iraq.” U.S. forces stationed there could come under increased attacks if relations with Iran worsen.

Mr. Jafarzadeh, who was associated with the Mujaheedin e-Khalq, a group that has been fighting the Tehran regime since its inception, believes the U.S. should “adopt a policy of regime change, not by military actions, but rather by stepping up support for the Iranian opposition. Mujaheedin e-Khalq is on the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Raymond Tanter, a National Security Council official in the Reagan administration, and co-founder of the Iran Policy Committee, agrees. Mr. Tanter believes the best way to bring about regime change in Iran — and one hopefully friendly to the U.S. — is to support the opposition inside the country.

“To catch up with the now-faster-ticking nuclear clock, it is a necessity — not a luxury — for the United States to empower the Iranian opposition which has the means and ability to unseat the clerics,” said Mr. Jafarzadeh.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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