Massive cheating or not?

A new kind of coup d’etat or not?

How do we interpret this strange election whose results were announced by the press affiliated with the secret services and militia--even before the polls were closed?

Considering the absence of international observers, considering that the election officials demanded by Ahmadinejad’s rivals were chased from polling places with billy clubs, and considering the climate of terror in which the whole process was steeped, it is hard to come down on one side or the other with much certainty.

Nevertheless, three things are quite clear.

The first is that this election had, in every way, only the appearance of democracy. Mir Hossein Moussavi, Ahmadinejad’s main rival, was no less a player than those in the political system. On the key subject of Iran’s “right” to nuclear arms, he had positions that were hardly different from those of Ahmadinejad. And, when questioned on his rival’s negationist views on the Holocaust, he didn’t hesitate to declare: “Even if there was a holocaust in Germany [we can appreciate the subtlety of the phrase “even if…”], what does that have anything to do with the oppressed people of Palestine, victims of a holocaust in Gaza [nothing more need be said)]?” The Iranian Gorbachev, in other words, is unfortunately still not on center stage. The man who would be bold enough to advocate a true Perestroika remains inconceivable and un-conceived in an Islamist republic that is, for the moment, sealed shut. And the observers who rambled on about the “alternative” presented by Moussavi, formerly Khomeini’s prime minister as well as the all-powerful director of the Iranian equivalent of Pravda, were overly na?ve--a little like those who, during the ascendancy of the Soviet Union, talked about the otherwise imperceptible conflicts of factions within the master structure, and thereby further orchestrated the charade. This is a fact.

The other fact, however, is the desire for change on the part of a substantive fraction--and perhaps even majority--of Iranian society. These angry voters that we have seen since Sunday defy the militia paramilitaries. The women who, in Tehran, Ispahan, Zahedan, and Chiraz, call for equal rights … The young people, constantly connected to the Internet, who have made Facebook, Dailymotion, and the “I Love Iran” site the theater of a playful yet formidable guerilla war … The taxi drivers who are the messengers of freedom of expression … The intellectuals … The unemployed … The shopkeepers protesting a regime that is ruining them … In short, the defiant against the defrauders. The bloggers and jokesters against the whitened sepulchers of the Islamist-military apparatus. The anonymous author of the joke relayed by text message by millions of cell phones, to the apparent delight of the protestors: “Why does Ahmadinejad part his hair down the middle? To better separate the male and female fleas.” They voted, all of them, for Moussavi. But without illusions. For lack of anything better. Like the Polish under Solidarnosc who, in the last years of communism, restrained their own revolution, waiting for the regime to self-destruct and collapse on itself.

Finally, the third certainty is that as a result, the initiative more than ever must be taken by democracies. Either one of two things will happen. Either the partisans of realpolitik prevail, and we bow down before the alleged outcome of the ballot boxes, and like the French minister of foreign affairs who, in 1981, at the moment of the coup d’?tat against Solidarnosc, coined his famous phrase, “we will do nothing,” and we confirm the worst. Or we use the means at our disposal--more numerous than we think--in view of a diplomatically isolated country, in view of a regime whose neighbors more or less secretly wish for its downfall, in view of a battered economy incapable of even refining its own oil. And we will avoid the double catastrophe that would be on the one hand, the intensification of repression, and perhaps bloodshed, in Tehran--and, on the other, the unstoppable strengthening of a jihadist State that, armed with nuclear weapons pledged to the Hidden Imam’s immediate disposal upon his apocalyptic return, would be a terrible danger for the world.

Let’s summarize. From these three certainties, considered together, arises a clear obligation: aiding and strengthening, with all our might, the Iranian civil society in revolt. We have done it in the past with the USSR. We eventually understood, after decades of cowardice, that totalitarianism, in its eventual state of putrefaction, was only strong from our weakness. And we discovered how to organize links of solidarity with the dissidents who ended up defeating the system. There is the equivalent of these dissidents in Iran. We are discovering that they are even infinitely more numerous and powerful than they were during Soviet communism. We must support them. We must encourage them. Obama’s “outstretched arm”? Could it be extended to the youth--the honor of a people that produced Avicenne, Razi, al-Ghazali, Kasifi, and so many others? Such are the stakes.

Bernard-Henri Levy's new book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against The New Barbarism, was published in September by Random House.

Translated from French by Sara Phenix.

By Bernard-Henri Levy