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Situation has calmed in Iran, but revolution could be brewing

BY JUSTIN SUGG | JUNE 23, 2009 7:21 AM

Millions have cried out against the re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, labeling Iran’s democratic process fraudulent.

It’s an injustice, of course, but I see this as the spark Iranians needed to ignite revolution.
Some of the most highly regarded news agencies in the world have labeled the election results as fraud. I agree with that, but I agree even more with commentator Christopher Hitchens in calling the entire election a charade. Iran’s eyes are open to that charade, and we have Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to thank for that.

I know my friend, Yashar Vasef — who is also a local Iranian human-rights activist — disagrees with my optimism, and he has good reason for that. He, like many people pushing for liberal democratic reform in Iran, believed Mir Hossein Mousavi represented a wider movement and that movement would have propelled Mousavi into the presidency, where he could reform the system from within.

But I’m skeptical; Mousavi is no stranger to the Iranian political system. He was prime minister of Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. He also presided over perhaps the most brutal era of the post-Shah regime. Thousands of political prisoners were executed under his rule, and the country became more reactionary and fundamentalist.

Since leaving office, Mousavi has retained an insider status, and over the years, he has become a relative reformist. This is precisely why some, including my friend Yashar, believe he could have changed things for the better in a more peaceful way. Mousavi-as-reformer would’ve been in the best position to reform the country because he was so conservative, knew the system inside and out, and would not lose credibility from the generation that participated in the 1979 Revolution.

Mousavi would be Richard Nixon, but instead of opening China to the United States, he’d open Iran to democracy.

It’s not that I don’t believe Mousavi would be willing to push reform, it’s that I don’t believe he’d be successful in that endeavor. Iran’s governmental structure stands between him and his goals.

Imagine this scenario: replace the U.S. Supreme Court with such guys as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and the like. And instead of a democratically elected president appointing them to the court, it’s the other way around — the court would appoint a “Supreme Leader” from within their ranks.

Americans could still elect members to the Congress and even a president, but the president wouldn’t have much power. That is essentially the Iranian political system.

Mousavi could probably only reverse Ahmadinejad’s cultural policies, returning Iran to the state it was in the ’90s — not even close to being a true liberal democracy. As long as religious authorities supersede democratic institutions in Iran, no president will ever be able to transform it into a fair democracy.

This phenomenon is not unique to Iran. Political scientists have observed trends in political movements and political change in other countries. The more liberal a country, the more able it is to make changes using standard political participation. Also, the more repressive a government, the more likely political participation involves violent reaction.

This narrows Iran’s options for political change. If results from standard political participation (voting, reform governments, etc.) are related to the government’s liberalism — or lack thereof, as in Iran’s case — then the chances of political change happening through standard reform movements are very rare.

Mousavi’s election could have, in fact, perpetuated the current Iranian political system. The establishment officials would likely have used it to say their system works and that it is possible to have a legitimate democracy managed by a group of religious elites. The blatant fraud and greed of the establishment has shattered that illusion. It’s both sad and tragic that many innocent people will die in this struggle.

I would like to agree with my friend Yashar that this could have been avoided, but as Thomas Jefferson once said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”


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