June 15, 2009

Iranian Democracy

Just a few quick thoughts on the elections in Iran.

First, has it occurred to anyone that maybe Ahmadinejad actually won? That the results are genuine? This doesn't even seem to have been considered as a possibility in the western media. That doesn't mean I doubt for a second that the mullahs wouldn't rig the election or that Ahmadinejad wouldn't, either -- but just because they would do it doesn't mean they had to, or that they actually did.

Second, and on a related note, the irritating thing about democracy is that sometimes voters make the wrong choices, for the wrong reasons. Deft politicians are able to sway voters to support them based on appeals to emotion rather than appeals to their self-interest, and that's true here in the U.S. as well as Iran and anywhere else. Democracy was a great way for the Palestinians to govern themselves until Hamas won the elections.

Third, we in the west wanted Mousavi to win, and to try to bring reform to Iran so badly that we have almost certainly projected our desires onto our willingness to see reality with a clear eye. We want very much for the young people in Iran to take action, seize power, and open their nation up to the west so that it can become a more responsible member of the community of nations. That doesn't mean it's going to happen.

Fourth, brutal dictatorship does not necessarily mean an impoverished and brutalized public. Iran has been doing pretty well for twenty-five years -- sure, we believe that an alternative path could be even better for it, but it would not be unreasonable for the man on the street in Tehran to look around his circumstances -- he likely has a job that pays enough money for him to keep a roof over his family's head, put good food on the table, keep gas in his car, and see periodic demonstrations of national pride and power -- and think, "You know, it could be a whole lot worse." High demand for petroleum in the industrialized west is the principle reason why Iran is prosperous despite its oppressive and theocratic government. As long as that is the case, it will seem safer to many Iranians to simply go along with things in order to get along as they have been.

Finally, suppose there was election fraud. Really, so what? Everyone knows that a council of clerics holds the real ultimate power in Iran, that the alliance between the religious institutions and the military is the force that keeps that country's status quo going. The more or less democratically-elected government is entrusted with a variety of tasks and given varying amounts of latitude to do a variety of things -- but it is always kept on a leash. In Ahmadinejad's case, the lease is long and slack, but do not think for a second that it's not there. The self-appointed, unelected power brokers exercise veto power over anything that the government does as a practical matter, so even if Mousavi had won or somehow invalidates the results of the maybe-it-was-maybe-it-wasn't-stolen election, there's only going to be so much he could do anyway.

So while Iran moves into its third day of post-election violence and government crackdowns -- eerily reminiscent of China's crackdown on its pro-democracy movement twenty years ago -- we in the west can really only stand back and watch Iran try to solve its own problems. The Iranians do not want our help, they have sufficient resources to resolve their situation on their own, and if we don't like how they do it or the result they settle on, well, they have their own country so their response to us will be, in so many words, "Tough noogies. What are you going to do about it, invade us?"

We can't do that, and they know it, so that leaves us with only the ability to cluck at them disapprovingly. Which, as it turns out, only plays into the hands of the people we would prefer didn't hold power there in the first place.


Darth Rob said...

I knew Ahmadinejad would claim the win, whether he won fairly is up to the history books, however the good thing about this election is the people of Iran have had the seeds of freedom and democracy planted in their heads where they will grow and spread and someday, maybe decades later, it will give them the will to free themselves.

David Schraub said...

Juan Cole's analysis gives strong credence to the rigged election claim. It's possible that the regime panicked and rigged an election they would have won anyway (but by a closer margin), but there is plenty of evidence out there aside from Western wishes of substantial irregularities effecting the outcome.