Now comes the hard part.
When I left Tehran early Monday morning, I felt guilty. Guilty because I was leaving behind the faces of the hundreds of people I talked to, met with, had tea with, and interviewed who were backers of the failed presidential campaign of Mir Hossein Mousavi. In their faces, in their eyes, I saw the hope of a new Iran. They told me, passionately, that wanted freedom — yes, freedom from the requirement of the hijab, but more important, freedom of expression, to speak freely, to have an independent media, to create works of art that don’t have to be reviewed by the know-nothings of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
So what’s the hard part? The fact that the United States is going to have to talk with the regime of President Ahmadinejad. And not only talk, but make a deal.
The people who wanted change aren’t going to get it. The regime is too powerful, and it controls all the levers of power: the army, the police, the Revolutionary Guard and paramilitary groups, thuggish militias, the judiciary and courts, the media, and more. Those who hope that the reformists, including Mousavi, former President Khatami, and cleric Mehdi Karroubi, will support a revolt that makes use of the mass movement against Ahmadinejad will find their hopes dashed.
The Guardian Council and the powers-that-be, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Leader, won’t permit the election to be reversed. And they won’t allow a popular movement to develop against it, despite the massive outpouring of anger, bitterness and resentment that has led hundreds of thousands of Iranians to gather in Tehran and other cities around the country.
In my opinion, and in the opinion of many Iranians I spoke with, the election was absurdly rigged. It’s unlikely that they even counted the ballots, in fact, just posted a final number and called it quits. But whether the election was rigged or not, Ahmadinejad will be president of Iran until 2013.
That makes it exceedingly difficult for President Obama. First, it’s hard because Ahmadinejad himself is virtually radioactive for American politicians. (As one Iranian told me in Tehran, anticipating that a US-Iran dialogue could start with exchanges between Congress and Iran’s Majlis, “Can you imagine Howard Berman [chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee] standing next to Ahmadinejad?”) That makes it politically difficult, extremely so in my opinion, for Obama to bring the American body politic and public opinion along on the ride to better US-Iran ties. And second, it will be even more difficult because for the next four years Ahmadinejad will be viewed as an illegitimate president who stole the election. So it’s tough to imagine Obama dealing with a president who’s bellicose and defiant, on one hand, and a usurper, on the other.