Iran: Four Ways the Crisis May Resolve

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Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters

A supporter of Iranian presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi holds a campaign poster and a piece of green cloth during a rally in Tehran on June 15, 2009

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3. Khamenei's "Divine" Retreat?
Khamenei blundered when he yoked his position as Supreme Leader — which is typically above the factional fray of the regime's politics — so closely to Ahmadinejad. He issued a barely disguised public endorsement of the candidate and then rushed to proclaim Ahmadinejad's "divine victory" and order all Iranians to accept it. But the mounting instability on the streets appears to have sent Khamenei into retreat as he ordered the Guardian Council to investigate claims of electoral fraud. If the combination of escalating street demonstrations and the politicking of Mousavi's backers inside the regime's councils prompts Khamenei to conclude that an Ahmadinejad victory is untenable, he could press the Guardian Council to heed the opposition's demand for a new vote — or, more likely, "adjust" the result so that no candidate has a clear majority, forcing a runoff election between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. Such a course would be a bitter pill for the Supreme Leader, dealing a body blow to his efforts to install Ahmadinejad and mocking his authority by forcing him to reverse himself. Whatever its outcome, this crisis has badly damaged Khamenei's credibility within the regime, heralding the onset of a bitter backroom struggle in the coming years to choose his successor. As to whether he'll sound the retreat on the election, however, his own preference and the likely tooth-and-nail resistance to any reversal from Ahmadinejad and the security establishment that backs him mean that Khamenei may be more likely to seek a compromise that keeps the incumbent in place. That may require ...

4. A "Zimbabwe" Option?
The option that would probably hold the most appeal to Khamenei now would be brokering an agreement similar to the one that has kept Zimbabwe's President, Robert Mugabe, in power despite his essentially losing an election — by bludgeoning the opposition into settling for an important yet subordinate role in his government. Already, Khamenei has appealed to a sense of national unity and preserving the regime, hoping to cajole the opposition into accepting the results. And at his first press conference following the announcement of his victory, Ahmadinejad reportedly asked his opponents to submit lists of candidates for membership in his Cabinet. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad may be hoping that standing firm and having the Guardian Council affirm his victory after a 10-day recount will produce opposition fatigue that, combined with the threat of violence, will see the protests peter out. By so doing, Khamenei would hope that the pragmatic conservatives — embodied by Mousavi — can be weaned away from the reformists (led by former President Mohammed Khatami) by giving them a stake in a national unity government and assurances of moderating Ahmadinejad's style of governance. However, that scenario would come into play only if Mousavi believed he was losing the battle and risked disaster by keeping his supporters out in the streets. Right now, there are no signs that the opposition feels beaten. (Mugabe's opponents settled for the deal only when they had been so pummeled that they could see no hope of unseating him.) Which is why all four options may remain in play while the various camps test one another's strength in the coming days.

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