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What now on Iran?

Memo to the mullahs: If you’re going to fake an election, at least make the results look plausible. According to the official tally in Iran’s presidential race Friday, incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad didn’t just beat his three opponents, he crushed them, winning 63% of the vote and a majority in all 30 provinces. What’s more, he beat his pro-reform rivals even in their hometowns and among their own ethnic groups, an extraordinarily unlikely feat.

No one can state with certainty that the Iranian election was invalid, because the balloting is not subject to independent monitoring or review. Indeed, at least one poll suggests that the results were genuine and that Ahmadinejad really is as popular as the tally makes it appear, despite rampant inflation and apparent public disdain for his anti-Western rhetoric. But accurate polls in Iran are very hard to come by, and it’s not exactly going out on a limb to assert that the election results are suspicious.

A more interesting question than whether the balloting was fixed, though, is what the United States should do about the results. As the demonstrations grow more heated, with hundreds of thousands of protesters flooding the streets of Tehran on Monday, some conservatives are calling on President Obama to crack down. “Initial reports by, quote, administration officials are that they say they’re not going to change their policy of dialogue, et cetera, et cetera. I think [the Iranian regime] should be condemned,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

McCain is correct that Obama has been reluctant to condemn Tehran; other than declaring that he was “troubled” by the situation during a news conference Monday, he has been quiet. Yet if McCain thinks that a hard-line stance is the path to success in dealing with Iran, he must have slept through the eight years of the Bush administration, whose approach left Tehran in a vastly stronger position geopolitically and helped Ahmadinejad coast to victory in 2005.

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Of greatest concern to the United States are Iran’s apparent quest for nuclear weapons and its support for anti-U.S. and anti-Israel terrorist groups across the Middle East. Even if reform candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi had emerged victorious Friday, the country’s policies on those issues would not have changed, because they’re set not by the country’s president but by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his clerical appointees. Moreover, history has demonstrated that anti-Iran rhetoric and the pursuit of sanctions without honest attempts at diplomacy simply empower the ruling regime. If Washington’s aim is to support the opposition movement, the wisest course is to continue reaching out to the Iranian people and keeping diplomatic doors open.


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