The Election in Iran: 'Extraordinary Amount of Wishful Thinking' by US

Many in Iran and the West assume that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election was the product of fraud. American Iran expert Flynt Leverett told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the irregularities likely weren't as bad as in Florida in 2000. Now, the US has to make the regime an offer.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad scored an overwhelming victory in the Iranian presidential elections held on Friday. Are you surprised?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking at a press conference in Tehran on Sunday.
AP

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking at a press conference in Tehran on Sunday.

Leverett: No. I would have been surprised if he had lost. The Western media overstated the surge of his main opponent Mir Hossein Mousavi over the last couple of weeks. They missed almost entirely how Ahmadinejad was perceived to have won the television debate, for instance. There was an extraordinary amount of wishful thinking on the part of American and Western policymakers. Unfortunately, that had a strong impact on the media coverage over the past few weeks.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Still many people, including in Washington, have expressed skepticism as to the validity of the results.

Leverett: I am a little surprised by the margin, too. But that makes me more comfortable about the overall validity of the election. Look at the irregularities Mousavi is citing now: that they ran out of ballot paper in some polling precincts, that they did not keep some polls open long enough. There is no way such things could change the overall outcome which is clearly in favor of Ahmadinejad. If you compare this to the flaws of the presidential election in Florida in 2000, it seems very insignificant.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Nevertheless, are you concerned that we might see more violence in Tehran?

Leverett: It will be interesting to see whether Mousavi will really push the argument that he won -- and if he calls his supporters out into the streets. Another big question is whether influential Mousavi supporters such as former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani might be willing to support his claim. But the more important thing is whether American and Western policy makers will believe that argument and not recognize Ahmadinejad's victory.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do they see it as a setback for their diplomatic outreach efforts to Tehran?

Leverett: They probably think that. But that shows how unrealistic their thinking is. 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.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: On the other hand, some argue that Tehran might now be more conciliatory toward the new administration to make up for the fact that the hopes of many Iranians for more democracy at home have been crushed.

Leverett: Again, that reflects the assumption that Ahmadinejad could not have won the election. That is a dangerous assumption. Fact is: Ahmadinejad won. He is even prepared for a dialogue with Washington under the right circumstances, as he stated earlier. But he is empowered now. The other leaders would support him to strike a deal with the US on the nuclear issue as long as it is in Iran's interest.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: This week, President Barack Obama appeared to claim credit for the "robust dialogue" in Iran by referring to his Cairo speech. Is that kind of public outreach doomed now too?

Leverett: 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.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So what will Washington do now?

Leverett: They will be paralyzed for a while and maybe focus on the alleged irregularities. In the meantime, Ahmadinejad might pre-empt them by putting out his own proposal on the nuclear program.

Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz

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