Iran at the Cross Roads — What should the US do?

Iran at the Cross Roads

The tenth presidential election in Iran was on the 12th of June. A few months ago, it was widely thought to be an easy win for President Ahmadinijad. Though his popularity had some what declined, because of the economic pressures on an average Iranian, but his very simple unostentatious life style and his strong stand against the tirade of the Bush administration were very popular. It was a matter of national pride. The very fact that Iran was able to withstand the massive American pressure, made Iran look strong and the US appear weak.

The most popular person to challenge President Ahmadinijad was the former two-term President Khatami, who was very popular when first-elected in 1997. Considered a reformer, but by the end of his second term his followers were disappointed. On the domestic front he failed to loosen the grip of the clergy on the levers of power. On the international front his friendly overtures to United States, including his offer of support against the Talibans in Afghanistan were rebuffed by the Bush administration. Instead of taking the hand of friendship, the Bush administration inanely branded Iran to be a part of the Axis of Evil. Mr. Ahmadinejad won the presidential elections of 2005, by painting the reformers as ineffective appeasers of the United States.

The dynamics of the presidential election changed when in March 2009 the former President Khatami, having problems even getting the approval of the Guardian Council to run, withdrew and threw his support to Mr Moussavi.

The other important factor was the end of the Bush era and the election of President Obama, along with the change in the US foreign policy from belligerency to diplomacy. Mr. Obama’s overtures for a civil dialogue with Iran left President Ahmadinejad without an easy mark rail against. Mr. Moussavi, a loyal supporter of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, was approved by the clerical establishment. He started gathering the support of all who were dissatisfied with the status-quo. It included the intellectuals, liberals, young people asking for the easing of what they considered onerous regulations, but most of all, many average Iranians suffering the economic hardship because of the western embargo on Iran and fall in oil prices since last November.

In this contentious election, almost 40 million Iranians, eighty percent of the electorate voted. The pre-election polls indicated a very close race, with a chance of Mr. Moussavi winning. The election results started trickling in even before the polls closed. Surprisingly, President Ahmadinejad won by a thumping majority of 62% to Mr. Moussavi 33%. To the shock of many, Mr. Moussavi, as well as the other candidates lost by big margins even in their hometowns.

Those who had voted for Mr Moussavi, strongly felt that the elections had been rigged. In Iran the system did not allow observers from the campaigns to monitor the voting and tabulation. It fed the dissatisfaction. The authorities refused to entertain any doubts. Within a week the dissatisfaction burgeoned to wide scale protests and civil demonstrations. Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenie first rejected the demand for recount, then accepted partial recount, again without the monitors.

In the mean time, the government arrested an untold number of people. Many well known names from the 1979 revolution, such as the daughter and some family members of Ayatollah Rafsanjan, and and many others former ministers have been detained.

The strong arm suppression of hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters was beamed the world over, including the beating and killing of silent marchers. According to the Iranian government 17 people have been killed, the opposition and other sources claim hundreds killed.

In this budding revolution, many supporters of the Iranian regime see the hand of the CIA, as it had overthrown Prime Minister Mosaaddeq in 1953 to restore the Shah to the throne. There concerns are legitimate, as the Bush administration had left no doubt that it would use any means to change the regime in Iran. It is quite possible that the Bush policies and spies in place in Iran may have a hand in stirring up the pot.

It is also possible that the election was very close and President Ahmadinejad may have won the election by a small margin, but it is becoming clearer by the day that there was wide scale rigging to ensure the results. On the 22nd of June, the 12 member Guardian Council, that oversees the election, accepted that three million votes may have been miscounted and there were 50 places, where the number of votes cast exceeded the eligible voters. Yet it declared the elections to be fair, allowing only a limited recount. Once people loose faith in the honesty of the process, they can not be satisfied by the promises of unsupervised rectification by the same people.

From the fast changing scene in the past twelve days, it is evident that the CIA may have had its designs, but this wide spread movement was neither planned, nor controlled by any one including its reluctant leader Mr. Moussavi. The wide spread pent up frustration of a large populace has found an avenue to express itself. Mr. Moussavi finds himself at the head of a budding revolution that he did not plan. He is in no position to contain it without loosing face and his leadership.

Ayatollah Khamenie is in a precarious position. By taking a strong stand against a total and open recount, he missed a great opportunity to control the events peacefully and to incorporate the opposition. One great advantage of democracy is that it allows change to take place without tearing up the fabric of the society. It tolerates a certain level of corruption, nepotism, even small irregularities in vote counting. By taking a strong stand Ayatollah Khamenie is in danger of loosing control or suppressing and closing the country, harming Iran and the people of Iran to retain power by the force of arms. Iran may lurch from a theocratic democracy to a dictatorship.

Iran is finding it difficult to run a system as part democracy. Half free responding to the will of the people, such as popularly elected president and the Assembly (Majlis) albeit allowing only the candidates approved by the Guardian Council, and half controlled by the Supreme leader, indirectly elected for life, by an elected Assembly of Experts.

When the fog of the fast moving events clears, Iran would have changed no matter who wins. If the present structure of the government survives by closing the doors shut to the outside world, it would be detrimental to the Iranian people. If it incorporates the opposition, it will be a desirable change; otherwise it may turn out to be a bloody revolution that no Iranian wants.

The Iranian regime is trying to shut the news of demonstrations and repression, but inter-connective technology of the 21st century is proving to be an impediment. The cell phones are ubiquitous, more than 80 percent of the people, especially the young have it and can twitter the information and pictures world wide. The government cannot shut the technology portal to the rest of the world without severely wounding its own economy and communications.

One hopes that the rulers in Iran will remember that violent repression of the voice of the people exposes the bankruptcy of the government. The US may dislike and may have been helping elements opposed to the government within Iran, but the enormous uprising and peaceful demonstrations in support of the opposition is the voice of Iran and its future.

What should the United States do?

Iran has been in turmoil since the election on June 12th. For the rest of the world, especially for the US, it is important to understand, it is about Iran and not about the United States. It is the 21st Century, not the 20th, when the super powers manipulated the events in the world with impunity.

Events in Iran are moving fast. Most of the popular punditry in the United States was initially flummoxed, interpreting events with the US-centric biases; particularly the Neo-Con infected Republican Party. In spite of all the horrible mistakes of the eight Bush years, miring the country in un-necessary and terribly mismanaged wars and driving the country to near bankruptcy, they have learned no lessons, certainly not humility. They are taking pot shots at President Obama to be more belligerent towards the Iranian government.

They do not understand that the history of US orchestration of the overthrow of the first democratically elected Iranian regime in 1953 is as fresh in the Iranian psyche as the hostage taking of Americans by Iran in 1979 is for the American mind. The US supported brutal war waged on Iran by Saddam Hussain during the Reagan administration in the1980s has not faded from Iranian memory. Iran lost about a million of its youth affecting most families in Iran. The countries that the Iranians mistrust the most are Great Britain and the United States.

The Neo-Con mindset argues, “The Mullahs in Iran accuse the US anyway, so why not support the opposition”. They do not understand an important distinction. It matters less what the government propaganda machine puts out, it matters enormously what the people believe. So far it appears that because of the election of President Obama and the change in course of the US foreign policy, the Iranian public opinion towards the US has changed from completely negative to largely favorable or ambivalent.

Obviously the killing of peaceful protestors and bystanders in Iran is of concern to all decent human beings. But it is in the interest of the Iranians, the US and the world, that the events in Iran should be handled by Iranians peacefully. If the situation deteriorates in chaos, it is the Iranians who will suffer the brunt. The Iranian opposition has asked for moral support not belligerency towards the Iranian regime.

The United States is, and has been a super power for the last seventy years with world wide interests. It has often supported corrupt dictatorships over democracy in Asia, Africa and Latin America, while paying lip service to the idea of democracy. Mr. Reagan’s opposition of the Soviets is often highlighted by the Neo-Cons, but they never acknowledge his support of the South African apartheid regime while branding Nelson Mandela a terrorist, the support of the murderous Contras in Nicaragua and a deafening silence after the rape and murder of five US nuns and the murder of the Archbishop by the government death squads in El Salvador.

It is important to understand the present crisis in Iran and the role of major players in historical context. The Islamic Republic of Iran was born thirty years ago in a people’s revolution against the corrupt and brutal regime of the Shah wedded solely to aggrandizement of his personal power helped by the western interests. Iran is not a dictatorship as some exaggerate, but a theocratic democracy, not to our liking.

Since the revolution in 1979, Iran has had ten presidential elections, and six presidents. Three of the presidents were elected for two terms each. All the previous elections were largely considered to be fair. The office of the President in Iran is not the highest office. It is more like the office of the chief executive officer, under the ultimate authority of the Supreme Leader (literally, the leader of the revolution).

The Supreme Leader is elected for a life time by the 86 members, Assembly of Experts. The Assembly of Experts is elected from a list of screened candidates by a direct election for an eight year term. That is how the theocracy controls the democracy. The former president Ayatollah Rafsanjani is the current chairman. He along with many in the religious establishment are supporting Mr. Moussavi.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who led the1979 revolution was unanimously elected as the first Supreme Leader. He held the office until his death in June 1989. The Assembly of Experts filled the vacancy by electing Seyyed Ali Khamenei (the president at the time) as the Supreme Leader by a two thirds majority. After twenty years he is still in power. He can only be replaced by impeachment. The reformers have tried to limit the term of the Supreme Leader.

The candidates for presidential election in contention are the children of the revolution and were strong supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini. Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current president was seeking a second term. The challenger Mr. Mir Hossein Moussavi is a former foreign minister who became the prime minister, during the presidency of, no other than the present supreme leader Seyyed Ali Khameini from 1981 to 1989.

Many in the US, particularly in the Neo-Con circles are making the mistake of grouping the Moussavi followers to be an anti-Islamic revolution. One of the most potent symbols used by the Moussavi supporters is the green color, popularly considered to be the color of Islam. This is an internal Iranian struggle for power in the Iranian context of freedom; the limit on the power of the state and for may the bread and butter issues. Both of the candidates are Iranian patriots who support the 1979 revolution and do not disagree with the ideas of constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran; though gradually it is evolving as a struggle for the check on the near absolute power of the Supreme Leader.

Their foreign policy is not likely to be substantially different. While Mr. Ahmadinijad was reactive to the belligerency of President Bush and finds it difficult to change, Mr. Moussavi will perhaps be more nuanced and soft spoken in the Obama mode, but will not yield Iranian interests to the Western pressure. President Obama is appropriately using the soft power words, rather than the bluster and empty threats of the Bush era.