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Riddle Me This: How Do You Respond to a Question Mark?

PH2009061600793.jpgAs Glenn Kessler and Jon Cohen reported this morning, we really don't know who won the Iranian election. We know that it looks like it was stolen. But it's not clear that it wasn't stolen by the candidate who was also the choice of the majority, or plurality, of voters. And this, as Foreign Policy's Annie Lowrey argues, is making the policy response pretty tricky. It's hard to organize against a stolen election if there's no hard evidence that the winner didn't receive the most votes.

[W]e have no smoking gun and no decisive determination of what happened -- no sure way of knowing if Ahmadinejad stole the election from Mousavi, or the election was fair, or Ahmadinejad stole an election he won....[In some ways,] the uncertainty of what happened in Iran a bigger concern than obvious fraud. We know how to respond to election-thieves. But how do you react to a question mark?

France and Britain have come out against the results. The Obama White House, characteristically, has responded with a light touch, little more than prudent-seeming and non-speculative statements -- condemning the violence and offering respect for Iranian self-determination.

But with no sense of what really happened in Tehran, it's hard to assess the policy responses as well. If Ahmadinejad tamps down rebellion and continues on the same path, what would be the best response, then?

Where I'd part with Annie is in that final hypothetical: Overwhelming violence in Tehran would ease the diplomatic difficulties considerably. It takes the focus off the legitimacy of the election and turns it towards the brutality of the regime. That's easier to condemn and sanction, regardless of the "real" results. At the same time, it's obviously worse from the perspective of, you know, people dying and the reform movement being potentially broken apart and driven deep underground.

Also, folks interested in this should read today's live Post chat with Thomas Erdbrink, who's actually on the ground in Tehran.

(Photo of of supporters rallying behind Mir Hossein Mousavi taken by AP Photo's Ben Curtis.)

By Ezra Klein  |  June 16, 2009; 3:45 PM ET
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Agreed. It's irrelevant who won this "election" to begin with. The more important thing from a US perspective is that the terrorism-sponsoring, nuclear-seeking, evil regime is being delegitimized.

Posted by: Dellis2 | June 16, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

I would've loved to see Ahmadinejad lose, but I just don't see compelling evidence of really massive scale vote fraud. The real issues with this election were issues like restrictions on free speech, the role of state-sponsored media, restrictions on who could enter the election, and the fact that, regardless of who won, the unelected Supreme Leader still gets to call the shots -- issues which were apparent long before a ballot was cast, and which had little to do with election night shenanigans.

Posted by: davestickler | June 16, 2009 7:00 PM | Report abuse

"Overwhelming violence in Tehran would ease the diplomatic difficulties considerably. It takes the focus off the legitimacy of the election and turns it towards the brutality of the regime."

You've got to be kidding me, Ezra. I know that foreign policy isn't your area of expertise - to say nothing of Iranian history - but Iran under the premiership of Mir-Hossein Mousavi was, if anything, far more brutal than anything we're witnessing under Ahmadinejad. I'd suggest you actually read up on the subjects you're writing about.

Posted by: ABHFGTY | June 17, 2009 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Most notably, Mousavi presided over the mass-executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. He's been silent on the subject ever since. There's no reason at all to believe he's a champion of human rights; the blood on his hands points indicates the exact opposite.

Posted by: ABHFGTY | June 17, 2009 1:28 PM | Report abuse

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