NOBODY can say that Iran has a true democracy. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approves the candidates who run, which makes democracy in Iran what a cheese substitute is to cheese. The trouble is, Iranians have developed a taste for it.
The campaign that pitted the main opposition candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had the taste of democracy for weeks, throbbing with passion and debate. Even within the approved boundaries, it offered plausible alternatives, the crazy "death to Israel" world-view of Mr. Ahmadinejad and the reformist approach of Mr. Mousavi.
But the result of the election was a horrible shock to those who had come to believe the campaign might set the nation on a new direction, however restrained and timid. Against the evidence as many people saw it, Mr. Ahmadinejad won - and, more shockingly, in a landslide.
The bitter aftertaste the Iranians are left with is not of democracy but of fraud. Defying authorities, hundreds of thousands of people have spilled into the streets of Tehran over several days to protest the result, the worst civil unrest in the city in a decade.
While Mr. Ahmadinejad has been dismissive of the protesters, Ayattolah Khamenei has directed the Guardian Council, which has the duty of certifying election results, to examine the claims of fraud, this after he at first welcomed the election results.
It may be too much to hope the result will be overturned. That would be the ultimate sign of weakness by a system based on absolute power. More likely, Iran's surprised leaders are playing for time. To the Islamic clerics, the cries of "death to the dictator" heard now in Tehran's streets must sound like an ominous echo of the protests that led to the fall of the shah in 1979 and their rise to power.
Besides joining others in the world community in expressing concern about the signs of a rigged election, the United States can't help. The Iranian people are the ones who must figure out what to do about that bad taste in their mouths.