Sunday, July 03, 2005

Iran election comments

Last week's election in Iran has put into prominence one Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (also transliterated Ahmadi Nezhad) with a large margin defeating ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Already the eyes of American readers are glazing over and looking around the room. Time to change the subject. Too much to take in.

I apologize, reader. This is one of those tedious posts about yet another obscure subject that you may not care to know about. Not care, that is, until the penny drops and you realize that as we slept smart people in high places were spinning the news, reporting only what we needed to hear, and planning how best to fit Iran into a plan for that part of the world as counterproductive as our current adventures in Iraq.

[Welcome, 3 Quarks readers, and thanks, Abbas Raza for the link.]

I, for one, am doing my homework and learning as much as possible. If more of our children die in yet another military adventure I want to understand why, even if I am powerless to prevent that tragedy. If collateral damage is about to take the lives of yet another population of non-combatants, converting their survivors and communities into a deeper anti-American temper than they already have, then I aim to do all I can to avert such madness. If the reader has a problem with that, you are welcome to overlook this post and move on to cute videos and lighter, less threatening subjects. I try to keep enough of those posted to break the boredom of unrelenting seriousness.

Back to Iran.

So far, the spin that has been advanced for US consumption seems to have two objects.
  • First, since Iran is an autocratic, Islamic, cleric-dominated system, then the elections must then be nothing more than a charade. There was widespread non-participation on the part of those qualified to vote, therefore they were by their non-participation essentially "voting" with their feet that the election had no legitimacy. (Never mind that Iran is awash with oil money, luxurious lifestyles and high educational levels that rival our own country. Never mind that when Americans don't vote, it is due to "apathy" instead of negative feelings about those running. Never mind that our own two-party system leaves meaningful third party alternatives back in the dust by the time the process gets to power-wielding levels.)
  • Also, the guy that won has been identified as a known criminal. He was one of the perpetrators of the kidnapping and hostage crisis that took place at the end of the Carter-Reagan race, blackmailing Carter and sealing forever a US-Iran enmity that pisses off American leadership to this day. No one can treat us that way and get away with it.

* * * * *

Now that we have that out of the way, here is what I am reading. I have found the names of six Iranian commentators, writing in English, sharing their various takes on the recent presidential election in Iran. I have not read through them all, but so far I have picked up on a few themes.

They are not all in agreement, but they leave a clear impression that spin number one (see above) is without merit. There is a feeling that despite the autocratic nature of Iran's polity, what has happened is a historic step in the right direction. So far, none of them seems to be regretting the outcome.

There is a good deal of pretending going on among the leadership and its opposition for the purpose of manipulating constituents. And constituents are buying into it completely. (This is not the same as our own system, you see, where all politicians are straightforward and plain in their positions in order that we can have a clear choice when we vote.)

Here is a sampling....

  • Bahram Rajaee says: A second Rafsanjani presidency would have been no panacea, but his victory would have been the first step in stemming the reactionary tide. The Tehran mayor’s triumph opens the way for untrammeled authoritarian rule in Iran led by an uncompromising minority. It could be a prelude to a worsening environment where resistance to the regime begins to shift outside the system as its legitimacy erodes beyond repair.
    Such a development will have disastrous consequences for peaceful democratization in Iran. It raises the spectre of the country descending into an unpredictable spiral of repression, isolation, and instability. Moreover, it will place Iran squarely on the road to crisis with the United States. Some welcome this crisis and its likelihood of a military confrontation that will put an end to the mullahs’ rule. I am not insensitive to this sentiment, but see little prospect of such external intervention doing much to bolster democracy in Iran.
  • Hamid Zangeneh, Widener University, says: ...the basiji (religious brigades) have never hidden their intention of suppressing those who violate Islamic codes or who do not affirm strong belief in the concept of an Islamic Republic with the supreme leader at its helm. These militias have been active, involved, and present everywhere at all times. They shed blood during the devastating eight-year Iran-Iraq war. They have attacked students, universities, and opposition leaders. They have hunted and murdered anti-establishment intellectuals. And they have religiously voted in every election.
    The June 2005 election was no exception. The tentativeness of the opposition, the political expediency of Iran’s youth, and the resoluteness of the establishment have together helped the religious zealots grab the final lever of power and checkmate other political forces in Iran.
  • Trita Parsi, foreign policy advisor says: The elections also showed that, contrary to much western conventional wisdom, the “youth constituency” does not necessarily exist, because class lines seem to be more defining in Iran than demographic ones. The concerns and needs of young people in affluent northern Tehran, to take a clear example, differ markedly from their contemporaries in the villages of Iran’s more undeveloped areas.
    In many ways, this vindicates the argument of those who opposed the policy of isolating Iran economically a decade ago. They argued that democracy in Iran will take root when economic development has created a sizeable middle class who will serve as a cushion against the populist demands of the lower classes and the corruption and monopolist tendencies of the ruling class. ...Iran’s step to the right in the presidential elections may further boost the agenda of those in Washington who wish to isolate Iran. This will only serve even more to hamper the country’s ability to create a sustainable democracy from within.
    The conclusion can only be that the disconnect of the pro-isolationists from the desires of the Iranian people is even greater than the disconnect of those who granted too much emphasis to their desire for social freedoms.
  • Bahman Kalbasi, student, says: Here we have a simple, everyday guy who speaks in populist slogans and promises, who is at the same time deeply religious, and whose followers and supporters are the worst religious fundamentalists Iran has. When he assumes power he will not be the real decision-maker; the supreme leader and other men in the shadows will make the real decisions for him. Does this all ring a bell? A bit like George W Bush? I think Iran’s reformist forces, after coming out of shock, must deal with the problem of their disconnection from regular citizens. They must find a way to explain to the people of Iran’s “red states” that right-wing fundamentalism has no solution for the economic crisis in Iran and in fact is the cause of the injustice.
    The bad news for the democracy movement in Iran is not just that the right-wingers won this election but also the fact that Ahmadinejad is personally implicated in the murders of dissidents in the late 1990s and his closest allies are among the most repressive former and current officials in the intelligence services. His actions might turn the next few years into such dark days in Iran’s political history that the last eight years of reform will look like a dream that ended all too quickly.
  • Ramin Jahanbegloo, political philosopher says: The sweeping victory of the austere and pious Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came as a surprise to most analysts of Iranian politics. Some consider it a sign of the rise of authoritarian populism in Iran. For others, the election of the 49-year-old mayor of Tehran is a replay of the 1979 revolution.
    Ahmadinejad’s appeal to the poor and the unemployed and his impeccable revolutionary credentials were the apparent keys to his victory against Rafsanjani, who appeared by contrast a symbol of Iran’s rich and powerful political elite. While Ahmadinejad capitalised on the social schism, reformers did little to convince many of the disenchanted and disillusioned youth to vote for Rafsanjani. [...] A cloud of uncertainty has been cast over the fate of civil liberties in Ahmadinejad’s Iran. Yet opportunities abound among Iran’s young population. Future prospects for political change in Iranian civil society are therefore undeniable, since despite the homogenising power of the regime, Iranians continue to hold dissenting views on matters related to political freedoms, women’s rights, press and the role of religious ideology in politics.
  • Abbas Milani, Iran Democracy Project says: In authoritarian societies like Iran, a transition to democracy requires, amongst other things, a rift in the ranks of ruling despots. The two rounds of the 2005 presidential elections have created and exposed cracks in the monolith of power; they have shown a system riven with structural fissures at the bottom and factionalism at the top. [...] The attempt by the right-wing cabal that masterminded the Ahmadinejad victory to solve Iran’s serious economic problems by reverting to old and tired populism is sure to fail. It will eventually deprive this group even of its small base of support amongst the poor in the city and countryside, whose piety and deprivation has made them dependent on the state. Bereft of this base, it will have only the military and security forces left to it, and that is hardly enough to maintain power in Iran today.
    This presidential election has created room for cautious optimism, and for doubting the stalwarts of despotism who think they have successfully killed the democratic and reform movement in Iran.
  • Nader Entessar, Spring Hill College says: The landslide victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran’s presidential election surprised not only Iran-watchers abroad but also caught political specialists inside the country off-guard. Although Ahmadinejad had served as the mayor of Tehran for two years and had held a number of other positions, he was relatively unknown to many of Iran’s voters and political analysts, several of whom had assumed that he would finish near the bottom of the seven-man slate of candidates. [...] What is to be done now? We must recognise that we have witnessed the most hotly contested and vigorous election in post-revolutionary Iran. The results clearly demonstrate that there is a dire need for pro-democracy elements to organise real political parties that are capable of interest-aggregation and interest-articulation at the grassroots level. The practice of qahr (sulking) that may lead to political withdrawal must be resisted at all costs. The losing parties can learn from the winning coalition about how to mobilise their constituencies. Apathy is not an option.
  • Roshanak Ameli-Tehrani, Peyvand Institute says: The unexpected and decisive victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran’s presidential elections has left many people stunned. How and why did it happen? Was the sweep of the conservatives due to people’s loss of faith in the reformist movement? The desperation of the extreme right to hold on to power in the face of what many view as the last vestiges of their reign? Iran’s economic crisis? Or a backlash against messages from Washington? [...] The elections also signal a call for action to the Iranian diaspora. Depending on the source, the size of the Iranian diaspora ranges from 2-6 million, with the vast majority living in developed nations amongst the upper socio-economic strata. It is time for the diaspora to shift its dialogue away from political divides to a shared narrative – one based on actively promoting and preserving a viable civil society in Iran. The diaspora can no longer assume itself separate from the 69 million Iranians living in Iran and wait for the reformists to bring about change. There is no panacea for democratisation. It is by nature a messy and arduous path. And yet there are proven components necessary for success. Much of the progress made on civil liberties since the 1978-79 revolution is a result of civil society. Today, grassroots-driven social-change initiatives can be found throughout Iran, most of which have been launched by an enterprising youth with virtually no resources other than human capital. Supporting these efforts and building broader civil-society structures are worth the focus of all those interested in a stable and democratic Iran.
  • Amir Taheri, writing in Iran Press Service, says: Rafsanjani and Khatami have tried to portray Ahmadi Nezhad as an uneducated street lout. Nothing is further from the truth. In fact, Ahmadi Nezhad is the best-educated president that the Khomeinist republic has had so far. Rafsanjani had no formal education while Khatami had a BA in divinity from Isfahan University. Ahmadi Nezhad, however, attended the Science and Industry University, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in Iran, and ended up earning a Ph. D. in civil engineering. Far from being “uneducated” he became a professor at his old alma mater, and has authored a number of scientific textbooks.
    Ahmadi Nezhad is also the first president of the Islamic Republic with a military background. He fought in the eight-year war against Iraq and has taught at the Revolutionary Guard’s staff college for years.

Still with me? Good.

This last item from Iran Press Service is lengthy but well-written. I recommend reading it in its entirety.

This represents to me an array of intelligent, thinking, critical people who all agree that the election didn't go as they had hoped. It looks to me like a reality check that caught a lot of people off guard. I'm struck by two important dogs that are not barking: First, there does not seem to be among them sparks of anti-American animus, but that is not to be taken that they are in any way seeking American intervention in Iranian affairs. Second, and this is most encouraging, I find no hint of antisemitism. This last point is impossible to overemphasize, because most of the world is antisemetic to some degree and the Islamic world is virtually rabid in its hatred of Israel and more than eager to link Israel with any untoward developments affecting them.

These writers all come across as serious, concerned, keenly insightful people who represent a varied cross-section of backgrounds and opinions. I don't know what is the best way to tell my fellow Americans that Iran is not the country that they think it is. And before we go charging into their country with sabers rattling, there are a thousand peaceful alternatives having to do with culture, diplomacy, economics and old-fashioned human relations that must be tried first.

Thanks again to 3Q for the link.

Now look at this...

سردبير: خودم (Editor: Myself)زن‌نوش (Parastood)اميد معماريان (Omid Memarian)زيتون (Zeitoon)پويان (Masih Alinejad)صبحانه (Sobhaneh)روزنگار (Rooznegar)Blue Shadowيک عاشق قديمی (An Old Love)

That's a sampling of blogs in Persian from the blogroll of Nema, Iranian Truth. The blogging community has been very active in Iran for several years now. Despite efforts on the part of the government to stop criticism and stop bloggers from doing what they do best, blogging has become an irresistable force operating under the radar in Iranian political dissent.

Even so, blogging is not without risks. Read this story from June from Reporters Without Borders.

That is enough for one night. More again if I have the energy.

[Next day continues, July 4, 2005]

Guess what Iranians are reading?

من‌ اين‌ بن‌مايه‌ي‌ بي‌ربط‌ بودن‌ فلسفه‌ به‌ دموكراسي‌ را در ملاحظات‌ خود
شرح‌ و بسط‌ خواهم‌ داد. عمده‌ي‌ آن‌چه‌ خواهم‌ گفت‌ درباره‌ي‌ وضعيت‌ موجود در
مملكت‌ خود من‌ خواهد بود، اما گمان‌ مي‌كنم‌ كه‌ بخش‌ عمده‌ي‌ گفته‌هاي‌ام‌ در
مورد دموكراسي‌هاي‌ اروپايي‌ هم‌ به‌ همان‌ اندازه‌ مصداق‌ دارد. در كشورهاي‌
اروپايي‌، همچنان‌ كه‌ در آمريكا، واژه‌ي‌ «دموكراسي‌» به‌تدريج‌ دو معناي‌ متمايز
يافته‌ است‌. دموكراسي‌ در معناي‌ محدودتر و كمينه‌گرايانه‌ترش‌ حاكي‌ از يك‌ نظام‌
حكومتي‌ است‌ كه‌ در آن‌، قدرت‌ در دست‌ صاحب‌منصباني‌ است‌ كه‌ با انتخابات‌ آزاد
برگزيده‌ شده‌اند. من‌ دموكراسي‌ به‌ اين‌ مفهوم‌ را «قانون‌مداري‌»
(constitutionalism) خواهم‌ خواند. اما دموكراسي‌ در معني‌ گسترده‌ترش‌ حاكي‌
از يك‌ آرمان‌ اجتماعي‌، يعني‌ تساوي‌ فرصت‌ها و برابري‌ در برخورداري‌ از امكانات‌
است‌. دموكراسي‌ در اين‌ معني‌ دوم‌ نشان‌گر جامعه‌يي‌ است‌ كه‌ در آن‌، همه‌ از
فرصت‌هاي‌ همساني‌ در زندگي‌ برخوردار شده‌، و هيچ‌كس‌ از اين‌ بابت‌ كه‌ در
خانواده‌ي‌ فقيري‌ به‌ دنيا آمده‌، يا از اعقاب‌ بردگان‌ است‌، يا زن‌ است‌، و يا
همجنس‌خواه‌ است‌، رنج‌ و دردي‌ نخواهد ديد. من‌ دموكراسي‌ در اين‌ مفهوم‌ را
«مساوات‌طلبي‌» (egalitarianism) خواهم‌ خواند.

Click this link to read English. Scroll to the end to find the source. Not a bad essay to discuss, incidentally, on Independence Day.

Updated July, 2006...

This post is now cross-linked with another Taheri reference that appeared in The Times of London July 23, 2006.

I see the last link (translating the Arabic) has gone dead. Perhaps some helpful commenter can leave a note telling me what I lost.
Sorry, but I can't recall exactly what the piece was about, but I think it was an unexpected commentary on Jeffersonian democracy by some American writer that I never would have expected to find at this source.
The link to the Cultural Research Bureau of Iran is still active. This is an NGO group, so hopefully the Mullahs have not been able to mess with it.

I cite this as yet another reason for the US not to rush quickly into a military tangle with Iran. There are too many internal opposition forces to be supported first.

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