It is impossible to know for sure how much the ostensible re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad represents the preference of an essentially conservative Iranian public and how much, as opposition voters passionately believe, it is the imposed verdict of a fundamentally authoritarian regime.
But for those who dreamed of a gentler Iran, Saturday was a day of smoldering anger, crushed hopes and punctured illusions, from the streets of Tehran to the policy centers of Western capitals.
Iranians who hoped for a bit more freedom, a better managed economy and a less reviled image in the world wavered between protest and despair on Saturday.
On the streets around Fatemi Square, near the headquarters of the leading opposition candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, riot police officers dressed in RoboCop gear roared down the sidewalks on motorcycles to disperse and intimidate the clots of pedestrians who had gathered to share rumors and dismay.
“Another four years of dictatorship,” a voter muttered. “This is a coup d’état,” several others agreed. Some women wept openly. Some talked of “mutiny.” Others were more cynical.
“It was just a movie,” said Hussein Gharibi, a 54-year-old juice vendor, scoffing at those who had gotten their hopes up. “They were all just players in a movie.”
Far off, President Obama and other Western leaders who had seen a better relationship with Iran as potentially helpful in resolving the problems of Afghanistan, Iraq and nuclear proliferation faced the prospect of doing business with a man who, in addition to being a Holocaust-denying hard-liner, now stands suspected in a sham election.
Satisfaction for some
There were some important constituencies that took satisfaction from the outcome.
Domestically, Mr. Ahmadinejad appealed to the fears of the more pious and poor who had found change unsettling. This included those alarmed by the days of political street carnival preceding the election and those (not just men) put off by Mr. Moussavi’s attention to the traditional, second-class role of women in this paternalistic quasi-theocracy.
They were joined by the civil servants, police officers and pensioners who all enjoyed the incumbent’s oil-financed generosity to his base, by those who relished his name-naming attack on corruption and by those who took pride in his defiance of the West.
Outside Iran, the result was comforting to hawks in Israel and some Western capitals who had feared that a more congenial Iranian president would cause the world to let down its guard against a country galloping toward nuclear weapons capability. (Mr. Moussavi, while promising a more conciliatory foreign policy, did not disavow the country’s nuclear-processing project, which Iran insists is for civilian ends alone.)
“In fact, Moussavi will be more difficult to deal with, because he will be nicer,” one skeptical Western diplomat said on the eve of the vote.
Among downcast Iranian journalists and academics, the chatter focused on why the interlocking leadership of clerics, military officers and politicians, without whose acquiescence little of importance happens, decided to stick with Mr. Ahmadinejad. Did they panic at the unexpected passion for change that arose in the closing weeks of the Moussavi campaign? Did Mr. Moussavi go too far in his promises of women’s rights, civil freedom and a more conciliatory approach to the West? Or was the surge an illusion after all, the product of wishful thinking?
The optimists in Iran and abroad have to ask themselves whether the joyful ruckus that filled the streets represented a new popular force or just an opportunity to let off steam. While Iran is not quite the closed society many imagine — it is a nation of text messagers and Facebook users, with access to Persian-language BBC broadcasts and other independent voices — it is still a controlled society.
On the street, the speculation focused more on how the election was manipulated, as many voters insisted it must have been for Mr. Ahmadinejad to score such a preposterous margin of victory.
One version (from somebody’s brother who supposedly knew someone inside) had it that vote counters simply were ordered to doctor the numbers: “Make that 1,000 for Ahmadinejad a 3,000.”
Others pointed out that the ballots seemed designed to lead opposition voters astray. Voters were obliged to choose a candidate and fill in a code. Though Mr. Moussavi was candidate No. 4, the code No. 44 signified Mr. Ahmadinejad.
One employee of the Interior Ministry, which carried out the vote count, said the government had been preparing its fraud for weeks, purging anyone of doubtful loyalty and importing pliable staff members from around the country.
“They didn’t rig the vote,” claimed the man, who showed his ministry identification card but pleaded not to be named. “They didn’t even look at the vote. They just wrote the name and put the number in front of it.”
Few options for the opposition
The government on Saturday insisted that the election was aboveboard and made it ominously clear that it would have little patience with anyone who questioned the purity of Iranian democracy.
It was far from clear what recourse the opposition had left.
Mr. Moussavi, who disappeared amid rumors that he was under house arrest or worse, sent word that there would be no turning back, but he did not say how he or his followers should challenge the outcome.
The text messaging that is the nervous system of the opposition was shut down, along with universities, Web sites and newspapers the government regarded as hostile. Mr. Moussavi was not allowed a platform on Saturday and barely managed to get out a communiqué calling the election “a magic show.”
Although there were bursts of defiance that were forcibly subdued, there was also a palpable fear; on Saturday, unlike on Friday, few opposition voters would let their names be used.
“By the evening, people will pour into the streets,” predicted one young woman, from inside the hood of her black chador. “But Ahmadinejad will become president by force.”
This story, "Reverberations as Door Slams on Hope of Change," originally appeared in The New York Times.