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Iran's Stolen Election Has Sparked an Uprising -- What Should the U.S. Do?

Can the United States speed the process for greater freedom in Iran? Yes. By staying out of the way as much as possible.

As the fraudulent outcomes in the presidential races of 2000 in the United States and 2006 in Mexico demonstrate, elections can be stolen without the public rising up to successfully challenge the results. There have been cases, however, where such attempted thefts have been overturned through massive nonviolent resistance, as in the Philippines in 1985, Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, and Ukraine in 2005. It is unclear as of this writing how the people of Iran will react to what increasingly appears to be the theft of their presidential election. So far, protests have been scattered, lacking in discipline and therefore easily suppressed. A general strike is planned, however, and a more cohesive and strategic resistance movement may emerge.

Despite the increased repression of recent years, Iran has witnessed a growing civil society movement and increasing calls for greater freedom. Indeed, those in the Iranian regime correctly recognize that the biggest threat to their grip on power comes not from the United States or Israel, but from their own people. Civilian-based insurrections have played a critical role over the past century in challenging Iranian rulers, such as during the Constitutional Revolution of 1907 and the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. Iran's clerical leaders, faced with growing dissent—particularly among youth, women, the middle class, and urban dwellers—realize that they may be next.

Already, the clerical leadership has been warning that it is willing to do whatever is necessary to nip a “velvet revolution” -- in reference to the two-week popular uprising that ousted Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime in November 1989 -- in the bud.

This may explain the clumsy effort by Iranian authorities to steal last Friday’s election. It had been widely assumed that the country’s powerful clerical leadership saw incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as something of a loose cannon. Meanwhile, his principal rival Mir Hossein Mousavi – despite his disagreements with Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over the years -- was very much part of the establishment. Indeed, Mousavi would not have even been allowed to run for president otherwise, since the Council of Guardians routinely forbids anyone who is seen to not sufficiently support the country’s theocratic system to participate.

Yet, Mousavi attracted such a large and enthusiastic following in the course of the campaign that the ruling clerics may have feared the momentum of his incipient victory could result not just in limited reforms, like those attempted under former president Mohammed Khatami, but revolutionary change. The size and intensity of Mousevi’s final rally last week, in which he referred to Ahmadinejad as a “dictator” -- which, by extension, implied an indictment of the system as a whole -- may have tilted the clerics into believing they could not take the risk of allowing the anticipated results to be verified. Despite his candidacy displaying a personality and style closer to Michael Dukakis than Barack Obama, Mousavi came to represent the change so many Iranians, especially young people, desperately desired and appeared determined to make happen.

So far, there are little indications that the diverse opposition in Iran has the organizational and strategic wherewithal to mount a massive nonviolent action campaign that could overturn the stolen election and bring greater democracy to that country. This stolen election may hasten that day, however. Iran today is not unlike Eastern Europe in the 1970s. The people may not be ready to overthrow the system, but the ideological hegemony which had previously maintained that system and stifled freedom of thought has largely vanished. Even among Iranians dedicated to the principles of the Islamic Republic, many now see their country essentially as a police state, recognizing that Ahmadinejad and the ruling clerics are little more than corrupt self-interested politicians who have manipulated their people’s religious faith for the sake of their own power.

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