That election is this June in Iran, pitting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of the Religious Neanderthal Republic of Iran, against Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a "reformist" who would moderate some of the nation's hard-line policies on human rights and in international diplomacy. That is, he'd steer it a few degrees left of the Stone Age.
The lives of three people with American ties are pawns in this election. Roxana Saberi is a Fargo, N.D., journalist with dual citizenship, who was snatched by the Iranian government earlier this year. Silva Harotonian is an Armenian who also has Irianian citizenship and who worked for U.S. aid agency. She was detained last June and was convicted in January of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government -- charges that Hartonian's family and American diplomats say are bogus. But the Iranian leaders have visited their most cruel and unusual treatment on Robert Levinson, a 61-year-old former FBI agent from Coral Springs who was a private investigator when in March 2007, while following a cigarette-smuggling case to Kish Island in the Persian Gulf, he vanished. In the two years since, Iran has not even had the decency to tell his wife and seven children whether he's alive or dead.
Theories abound, many of which were explored in a New York Times story Sunday. There have been scattered, unconfirmed reports of Levinson having been spotted in Iran. Other reports have him at a prison near Tehran. Officially, the Iranian government says it knows nothing of Levinson's whereabouts.
Because no group has said it is holding Mr. Levinson, some people familiar with his case have speculated that he may have died in captivity. But others believe that the silence surrounding his status could suggest that because of his F.B.I. background, his captors view him as a high-value chip in a possible prisoner swap.
In the meantime, the Levinson family is kept in an awful state of suspense. Sen. Bill Nelson has intervened on the Florida family's behalf, along with Congressman Robert Wexler, urging the U.S. State Department to use diplomatic pressure to free Levinson -- or at least to extract a bit of information. Yesterday, I talked about the case with a couple of Nelson staffers, and one of them expressed optimism that Ahmadinejad's electoral defeat might mean a break in Levinson's case.
But that is only one among a dizzying array of world-altering variables that play a role in whether Levinson's family will finally get its answer.
At the moment, Saberi's case is getting the most attention, if only because last week she was suddenly charged with espionage -- as opposed to her original charge, working without press credentials -- and tried with all the pageantry one can expect from Iranian courts. That is, in a locked courtroom, with few civil rights, and probably inadequate legal defense.
There should be little doubt that Saberi's case was put on the fast track for political reasons. Two months before the election, Ahmadinejad wants to flex every diplomatic muscle he has. The matter of extracting her release is complicated by the Iranian government's having declared her a spy, and it must be seen by the people as not suffering a spy lightly.
By contrast, though Levinson's association with the FBI means Iran could accuse him of being a spy, he has not been charged -- at least that we know of. If it isn't "officially" holding him, then by letting him go, it isn't "officially" letting him go, either. That is, maybe the Iranian powers-that-be have less to lose politically from releasing Levinson than Saberi, and that ought to be weighed against whatever Iran might get in exchange for his release, or at least for information on his case.
That is the one optimistic conclusion I can draw, anyway. I'm not holding out any hope that the reform party candidate will prevail in June. Yes, Team Obama's outward expressions of cordialty are smart, and they should undermine Ahmadinejad's argument to voters that this is a Bush-by-another-name. To quote Vali Nasr, and expert on U.S.-Iran relations, in last week's New Yorker story:
"Obama has clverly created a debate between the Iranian people and their leaders, and within the leadership itself -- and also, because this comes just three months before the elections, made it a campaign issue."
What's more, the Iranian people would be wise to consider the danger that Ahmadinejad's nuclear ambitions lead to a preemptive strike by Israel. At the very least, in a post-Bush era of diplomacy, one would hope that voters would see fit to disarm itself of whack-jobs-in-high-places. I mean, get a load of this bit from Ahmadinejad's adviser on all matters Holocaust, Mohammad Ali Ramin (from the same New Yorker piece):
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Ramin explained that the prevailing history of the Holocaust was unfair. The West, he said, had transferred its "Jewish problem" to the Middle East. "But it seems that the U.S. and other Western governments have finally decided to get rid of the Jews," Ramin said. "By bringing Hitler, and by taking the Jews to the Muslim world, they have created a situation in which the Jews will be destroyed. They have created a situation where, because they are killing Palestinians, the Jews are more hated than ever." He put on his glasses, and, for the first time, met my eyes. "And so you can see that Israel has been created to destroy not only Muslims but the Jews themselves."
It had grown cold, but Ramin was reluctant to bring us to his office. Finally, looking unhappy, he led us in, glancing around as he entered. As we sat in front of his desk, Ramin informed me that the Jews had carried out the 9/11 attacks. "The Zionists have blamed it on the Muslims so that they have an excuse to attack some Muslim nations," he said. But it was all for naught. The Jews had also helped Nero, and it had not saved the Roman Empire from collapse.
Nope, with guys like this running a country for the last 30 years, I suspect most of the skeptical, freedom-loving Iranians have fled the country, a deck-stacking that is decidedly in Ahmadinejad's favor in the coming election.
And why would he and his backers sweat out a close election when it might just as easily be rigged? Or, if that's too logistically demanding, to merely expose his opponent to the bomb-throwing talents of extremist groups -- a calamity that can easily be condemned after the fact?
Like it or not, the U.S. will have to deal with Ahmadinejad and the ultra-conservative clerics who back him.