The debate over the legitimacy of Iran’s elections are, in the end, a sideshow.   First, because the office of president is essentially powerless.  While President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the most visible face of the government, he’s not the one making key decisions on nuclear weapons, regional relations, or human rights. 

That falls to the mullahs: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Guardian Council.  Second, it is, at the end of the day, an internal matter.

Limited Options

Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn sets the stage quite nicely:

The Iranian election fiasco–or coup–poses a challenge for President Barack Obama. How should he continue his policy of engagement with a regime that appears to have stolen an election so brazenly? The United States does routinely deal with autocrats and democracy-suppressors around the world: Egypt, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and others. Few suggest that Washington shouldn’t have diplomatic relations with Beijing until China becomes a multi-party state with free elections. But should Obama withhold his support for the movement for reform and democracy in Iran? Could he do so without causing harm by tainting the opposition (Washington is not so popular in Iran)? And could he do so without killing the possibility of reaching any future accommodation with the present leaders of Tehran, who could end up staying in charge for years to come?

That last point is key.  As Tufts political scientist Dan Drezner points out, “Twice in the past ten years (1999 and 2003), this regime has been perfectly willing to crack down on reformist groups to secure its hold on power.  I see no reason for Khamenei to hold back this time around. In other words, unless Iran’s security apparatus starts to split, I don’t see how this ends in any outcome other than Khamenei staying in power.”

What Has Changed?

UPI editor emeritus Martin Walker makes the bold claim that,

The re-election of Iran’s firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is grim news for U.S. President Barack Obama. Little now remains of his hopes that diplomacy, respect and the offer of a new start in relations would resolve Tehran’s nuclear challenge. With oil above $70 a barrel, Iran can defy even tougher sanctions and short of military action it is not easy to see any way to prevent its development of nuclear capabilities.

The rest of his column presciently outlines why “in the longer run, the election result is even worse news for Iran.”  Further, Walker is almost surely right on the policy outcome. But, as New America Foundation Iran expert Flynt Leverett points out, the election didn’t much matter on that front:

Leaders in Washington and other Western capitals think the current stand-off is primarily about personalities and finding the right personality to deal with. That is not how Iran works — it is a system with multiple power centers. Within this system, the Iranians have a strong consensus on the nuclear issue and on reactions to US offers. Regarding the nuclear program, it does not really matter who won the election. All candidates would have pushed the nuclear program forward. None would agree to suspend the program.

He applies this reasoning bilaterally, rejecting much of the “Obama effect” discussion.

Public diplomacy in that sense is a waste of time. What is going to matter is the substance of your policy. Whether you get a deal or not depends on that substance. If you don’t put substantial offers on the table, all the nice speeches of the president won’t change anything.

Indeed, as Matthew Yglesias of the Center for American Progress observes, while he was viewed as a “reformer,”

Mousavi campaigned well within the Iranian foreign-policy consensus. He expressed no intention of making nice with Israel, believes Iran should continue to support armed struggle against Israel via Hamas and Hezbollah, believes Iran should be the leading power in the Persian Gulf, and believes that Iran should assert its right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to enrich uranium. The Mousavi platform left the door open to an agreement that would permit Iran to do what Japan, Germany, South Korea, and other countries have done — fully explore the science of uranium enrichment without constructing any nuclear weapons. But no matter who holds Iran’s presidency, the key question around any nuclear deal remains whether or not the supreme leader will go for it.

So, the West is in exactly the same position vis-a-vis Iran as we were Friday morning.  And more or less in the same position we would have had Mousavi been declared the 65 percent winner.

Transatlantic Unity

Beyond that, as Drezner suggests in a second post, the continuation of Ahmadinejad in power — especially with the legitimacy of his election under suspicion — actually makes it much easier for the West to present a united front.

If Mousavi had won outright, the Obama administration would have been in a serious bind on the nonproliferation question. The president of Iran doesn’t control the nuclear program; the supreme leader controls it. With Mousavi as the public face of Iran, however, it would have been tougher for the Obama administration to describe Iran as unyielding when it refused to make any serious concessions on its nuclear program.  Furthermore, Mousavi could always ask the Obama administration to back off on the nuclear question because of hardliner resistance back home. That gambit won’t play, now.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told NBC, “Talks with Iran are not a reward for good behavior.  Our interests are the same before the election as after … and that is we want them to cease and desist from seeking a nuclear weapon and having one in its possession and secondly to stop supporting terror.”   So callously dismissing the pleas for freedom on the part of Iran’s youth may sound cynical, especially after nearly two decades of American foreign policy being cloaked in the rhetoric of democracy.   It is, however, exactly the right stance.

Our interests in the region are unchanged.  So, for that matter, are the Iranian regime’s. All that’s different now is that any Western notions that they’re dealing with a democratic regime have been dashed. To the extent that our negotiators harbored such illusions, this weekend’s rude awakening is a necessary dose of reality.

The West should stand united in demanding the Iranian regime’s foreign policy come into accord with international norms.  We should likewise stand shoulder-to-shoulder in condemning governmental violence against peaceful protesters.   But the way they conduct their internal elections is, like it or not, none of our business.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

Related Experts: James Joyner