Now that religious conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has captured the presidency of Iran, questions turn immediately to Iran's nuclear ambitions and how the election result will affect U.S.-Iran relations. At first glance, the future doesn't look bright. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told "Fox News Sunday" that Ahmadinejad was the beneficiary of a "mock election" played out by Iran's ruling clerics. Rumsfeld said of the winner: "He is no friend of democracy. He is no friend of freedom."
The man Ahmadinejad beat, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, claims he was the victim of election fraud, an allegation backed up by an official in the Interior Ministry. But others say that Ahmadinejad, the 49-year-old mayor of Tehran, defeated his opponent in the runoff Friday by appealing to working-class and poor Iranians, promising to improve the economy and vowing to fight corruption, particularly in the oil industry. Election commentary indicates Rafsanjani, who had pledged to continue the political reforms of the past decade, was viewed as elitist and out of touch with the day-to-day life of ordinary Iranians. The Times quoted the blog of an adviser to Khatami who claimed the reformers lost the election in part because "we focused our attention on elites and forgot the ordinary people who are trying to get their daily bread."
Although Ahmadinejad said Sunday that his government would eschew extremism and pursue a policy of moderation, he also said that Iran has "no significant need" for a relationship with the United States. He also said that he plans to revive Iran's nuclear development program, which his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, froze as part of his negotiations with members of the European Union.
Ahmadinejad said that Iran's nuclear program has only peaceful purposes, but others aren't so sure. And some -- like journalist Seymour Hersh and former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter -- say the United States is already ramping up to take action if Iran goes nuclear. Hersh reported earlier this year that U.S. covert operations have been taking place inside Iran since last summer. And Ritter charges that an American invasion of Iran is a fait accompli, alleging that the U.S. military is busy establishing a base of operations for that invasion in Azerbaijan.
But it's difficult to imagine how the Bush administration could pull off such an invasion either militarily or politically, given what's happening in Iraq. With American troops in Iraq bogged down and beleaguered, it seems the most that the U.S. could hope to accomplish against Iran militarily would be air strikes against its nuclear and military infrastructure. And what then?
Making the talk-show rounds Sunday, Rumsfeld assured Tim Russert that going to war is always "your absolute last choice." But this is the same man, of course, who, according to former counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke, wanted go to war against Iraq, not Afghanistan, in the wake of 9/11 because there were "lots of good targets" there. He was right about that, or at least he is now: 138,000 U.S. troops are currently serving as targets for the Iraqi insurgency. Will Americans feeling increasingly betrayed on Iraq allow the administration -- no matter how justified -- to create another "target-rich environment" in Iran?