Iran, so far away

BY DEAN TREFTZ | JUNE 15, 2009 7:26 AM

Audio: The author reads his column

This weekend, an ayatollah helped remind me why I love Iowa.

The thought struck me after about an hour of paging through coverage of the (ahem) disputed election results in Iran.

I realized that it’s impossible for me to process what’s going on in Iran right now. Several days ago, people were dancing in the streets (illegally) with anticipation of a democratic step away from the police state they were defying with their feet.

The streets of Tehran are now hosting the largest protests the country has seen in a decade.

From the looks of it, the ruling regime decided that democracy is too precarious a thing to be left to the political process. Despite several indicators that the relatively moderate candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, was set to oust Dick Cheney’s favorite figurehead boogeyman, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s state television announced that Ahmadinejad had won in a landslide.

Irregularities in both the government’s postelection actions — shutting down texting service, detaining opposition candidates — and the results themselves — Ahmadinejad “won” Mousavi’s home province — are further indicators of falsified numbers.

It’s not like Iran had been a beacon of self governance, and because major policy decisions must be cleared by Ayatollah Khamenei, there’s a good chance a Mousavi victory wouldn’t have amounted to much, anyway. But with a huge turnout — anecdotal media reports suggest the government’s figure of 85 percent doesn’t sound as ridiculous as the results — a lot of people must have trusted the system enough to cast ballots.

How would you react if you woke up to all this after voting for Mousavi?

I honestly don’t know. I don’t have much to compare with because I live in Iowa, one of the states most dedicated to the idea of a “fair” political process.

For example, Iowa has one of the least contentious congressional redistricting processes in a country where contorted, Picasso-like, gerrymandered districts are fairly common. Also, the Iowa Supreme Court was clearly attempting to solely interpret the state Constitution instead of heeding partisan calls when legalizing gay marriage.

Sure, I’ve been frustrated with the electoral system before. Slightly more than half of us felt cheated in 2000 after it took the U.S. Supreme Court to put George W. Bush into the White House. It wasn’t fair, we said; more people voted for our guy and he probably even would’ve won the electoral vote with a full recount of Florida.

But then there were recounts and oversight and the results were close enough that it was at least plausible that Bush won through an electoral process, even if it was a little screwy.

No such process was apparent in Iran. The results came in from the state as if arbitrarily picked out of a hat.

The day after the election, Khamenei urged the country to fall in behind Ahmadinejad, dashing hopes that somehow a more legitimate-sounding result would emerge from the government.

When thinking about this I have trouble empathizing with the disenfranchised Iranian student because there’s no scenario my brain can conjure up that is remotely as hopelessly unfair on such a scale.

I guess I’ve (naïvely, perhaps) accepted that fundamental democratic belief that if you get enough people to agree with you, something will happen. I believe in our (admittedly flawed) system to the point that I have trouble imagining not believing in it.

I don’t know if Iowa’s civic culture is any different from that of states in other regions, but this weekend triggered memories of calling the Democratic and Republican heads of various counties throughout Iowa while reporting on the run-up to 2008’s caucuses.

By and large, they were both elderly and closely following the election’s twists and turns. I’d usually banter with them for a while about how Huckabee was polling or what Obama had said about Hillary the other day. They were obviously interested, but I never heard them more passionate than while talking about the minutiae of setting up their particular caucuses and making sure everyone had a chance to vote.

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