The degree of international interest and the domestic uproar at the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a testament to Iran’s importance to the future of the Persian Gulf countries, ranging from Turkmenistan to Pakistan, and Islamic polity in general. Though almost all Iranian election have been marred by polling irregularities, the protests that have followed Ahmadinejad’s overwhelming victory have been particularly widespread and intense. Though the president-elect has received the all-important endorsement of spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it is noteworthy that the latter has felt it necessary to call for an investigation of the fraud charges.
It is a mistake to see the presidential results as evidence that Iran will continue to be difficult about fulfilling its obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and various United Nations resolutions. It is also a mistake to see the elections as a choice between reformers and conservatives. There was little difference between any of the main candidates about the importance of pursuing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. There were also only marginal differences when it came to gender rights or the nature of the country’s theocracy. The nuclear issue, as is much of Iran’s strategic policy, is ultimately decided by Khamenei. The regime would never have allowed a radical reformist to have run for office in the first place.
What matters is whether Khamenei believes it is time for Iran to play a more constructive role in the international system. By most accounts, Iran is just a few steps away from mastering the technology to become a nuclear weapons state. It has emerged as the primary power in the Gulf, with a significant presence in Iraq. The present US administration has indicated it wants a more active Iranian role in helping Washington deal with crisis areas like Afghanistan and Iraq. Tehran should use this opportunity to translate leverage into a modus operandi with the US that would recognise Iran’s larger profile. For the protracted engagement that would allow that to happen, it is important that Ahmadinejad be gagged from making pointlessly provocative remarks and Khamenei to decide where the nuclear programme can be halted without actual weaponisation. The most hopeful part of the Iranian election was Ahmadinejad’s subdued victory speech and his observation that “the world is moving towards conversation and dialogue.”