Iranians go to the polls

Will President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad be reelected? And if not, what does that mean for Iran, and the U.S.?

Topics: Iran, War Room, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Middle East,

It’s an off-year for elections in the U.S., but half a world away, there’s a vote that could prove very important here and all over the globe. Iranians went to the polls Friday to vote for, among other things, a president. And they went in droves, too — the crowds were so large that officials had to extend voting hours three times, and there’s been some speculation that the turnout might set a record.

The stars of the show are President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the challenger with the best shot at knocking him off, Mir Hussein Moussavi, a moderate former prime minister. There are two other candidates in the race as well, though, so it’s possible that no candidate will get a majority of the vote. That would mean a runoff down the line, most likely between Ahmadinejad and Moussavi, though some supporters of Moussavi — former President Mohammad Khatami, another reformer who Ahmadinejad has said is pulling Moussavi’s strings, is one — believe he could win outright today.

For now, though, there’s really no way to be sure who will come out on top. American polling firms, obviously, don’t exactly have operations in Iran. Plus, there’s been plenty of worry, from all sides, that various people could try and tamper with the election somehow. Reformers worry Ahmadinejad and the government will rig the ballots; Ahmadinejad’s backers are warning that Moussavi’s supporters will try to claim victory prematurely and then stage something like Ukraine’s Orange Revolution.

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Whatever way the election goes, Americans will almost certainly try to spin it as a referendum on President Obama’s policies. ABC News’ Rick Klein, for instance, has written that the vote “has the potential to offer an early verdict on the impact of Obama’s new approach to foreign policy and the Middle East.”

That might be true — or it might be a reflection of Americans’ tendency to view the Earth as revolving around the U.S. Remember that, no matter how much attention Ahmadinejad’s gotten for his foreign policy radicalism and Holocaust denial, the Iranian president doesn’t actually control his country’s military or relations with other states. The Ayatollahs are in charge of that. And if Ahmadinejad does lose, it will most likely have a great deal to do with his failure to live up to his promises about domestic policy. Asked about Ahmadinejad’s comments on the Holocaust and Iranian nuclear ambitions, Fareed Zakaria observed, “These statements capture the attention of the West, but most Iranians are concerned about domestic issues, such as the price of bread.”

In an ironic twist to the U.S. reaction, some of the most vocal critics of Ahmadinejad here, like Daniel Pipes, are actually saying that if they were able, they’d vote for him over Moussavi. Mostly, this comes back to their concern that the Obama administration would see Moussavi’s victory as proof their stance is having a positive effect, and also that Obama could be fooled by the reformer’s softer line.

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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