President Bush, addressing the Iranian people on the eve of their presidential election, today denounced Iran's electoral system as undemocratic and vowed that America would stand with those seeking "freedom" in the Islamic Republic.
In a statement distributed by the White House, Bush charged, "Today, Iran is ruled by men who suppress liberty at home and spread terror across the world. Power is in the hands of an unelected few who have retained power through an electoral process that ignores the basic requirements of democracy."
He added, "The June 17th presidential elections are sadly consistent with this oppressive record."
The statement amounted to a repudiation of the elections and the seven candidates for president, three of whom have campaigned as reformists and are considered relative moderates by local standards. This group includes the front-runner, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 70, a Shiite Muslim cleric who has served two previous presidential terms. Although he was formerly known as a hard-liner, Rafsanjani now bills himself as a reformer who intends to improve relations with the West, including the United States, and liberalize the economy.
... "Across the Middle East, hopeful change is taking place," Bush said, citing elections in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. "People are claiming their liberty. And as a tide of freedom sweeps this region, it will also come eventually to Iran."
... "Today, the Iranian regime denies all these rights," Bush said. "It shuts down independent newspapers and Web sites and jails those who dare to challenge the corrupt system. It brutalizes its people and denies them their liberty."
Bush concluded: "America believes in the independence and territorial integrity of Iran. America believes in the right of the Iranian people to make their own decisions and determine their own future. America believes that freedom is the birthright and deep desire of every human soul. And to the Iranian people, I say: As you stand for your own liberty, the people of America stand with you."
Earlier, I questioned the gloomy assessment of the Israeli-based analysis site Debka. Debka's analysts interpreted Bush's backing of el-Baradei for a fifth term at IAEA as a "dramatic reversal" that could only mean Washington had given up on stopping the regime's nuclear program. Debka concluded that "For Israel, Washington’s quiet retreat from its campaign against an Iranian bomb spells disaster, the collapse of yet another vital strategic asset intrinsic to the Sharon government’s defense posture."
But it is more likely that it is el-Baradei, not Bush, who has reversed course. A Reuters article quoted at Regime Change Iran flatly states:
The United States lost the battle to depose ElBaradei, but it has not given up its fight against Iran's nuclear program, which Washington says is a front to develop nuclear weapons.
The Reuters sources contend the appointment is more of a face-saving compromise for the UN than a surrender by the US:
"The U.S. has taken the most graceful way out of this situation," a Western diplomat said before the IAEA board meeting. "It has decided to back ElBaradei in exchange for what it hopes will be a tougher stance on Iran," the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
Also, as I argued previously, it is quite likely that Bush neither desires nor expects the current regime to be sitting in Tehran for very much longer. He may regard both the UN and the IRI as equally irrelevant. In this case, it does not much matter now whom Bush endorses or opposes for the IAEA. In fact, it is quite possible that the Bush Administration has already conducted some kind of negotiations with the future government of Iran.
It would be foolish for the President to consistently commit himself to this hardline anti-regime position unless he believed he had some assurance of being vindicated in the end. Debka - which lately has been sounding a lot like the New York Times - foresees Bush limping through the remainder of his second term, trying to cut his losses, and waiting for the next administration to take on the mess. I believe this assessment is out of character for Bush, and it is not a realistic view of the President's position. The Chief is putting his credibility on the line with Iran - it's only reasonable to assume that he has the means to back it up.