Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Unrest in Iran: More insights

By Shane McCarthy,
CNI Staff Writer

It is clear from events on the ground that the ruling cleric’s decision to halfheartedly investigate electoral fraud has done little to dissuade demonstrators or put an end to protests in Tehran. Though the inquiry may continue, the ultimate decision (for the moment) as to who will win this election will still be made by Ayatollah Khamenei. Because of this fact, it is almost certain that the official position of the Iranian government will continue to be that Ahmadinejad has been re-elected. After all, if a government has no problem marring the results of an election through an elaborate rigging scheme (as now appears to be the case), then they would most likely have no problem fixing the results of a small investigatory panel.

For this reason, the protests in support of reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi become even more interesting. During his tenure President Ahmadinejad has served as an effective scapegoat for Americans, who see his ambitious nuclear plans and repeated Holocaust denials as the crux of Iranian policy. However, Iranians know better than anyone else that their Presidency is really a glorified puppet whose decisions fall under the authority of Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guard, and the Guardian Council. It is even a possibility that this entire election was used simply as a means for the Revolutionary Guard to execute a military takeover. What is the point therefore is rallying for a presidential candidate whose authority is ultimately moot?

A recent New York Times video examined the differences between the past Iranian political protests and the current demonstrations. For the most part, previous protests were usually confined to select groups of students on university campuses fighting for less widespread issues such as labor and education reform. Now, thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds are fighting for an issue with much deeper implications: national election fraud. Mousavi falls into the greater picture by serving as the rallying figure to bring all of these people together. Although Mousavi lacks the charisma or drive to act as a true revolutionary leader, he provides the motivation necessary to get the reform movement off the ground. The lack of a leader has been one of the main reasons why reform has failed for so long in Iran, and with Mousavi calling for civil disobedience it appears that this trend has changed.

Last year I had the privilege of speaking with Mohsen Sazegara, one of the architects of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. As he described it, the movement that formed the current Islamic Republic was very ideological in nature; a small group of intellectuals worked to overthrow the Shah and the people and army followed suit. The entire movement was based around the goal of ousting those in power, but after the coup was over the new elites were unsure of what to do with their country. The hardline Islamists and the socialists, who had worked together for a common goal ended up bickering over power (and in the end, the Islamists won). Eventually, as is the case with most revolutions, those who took over ended up becoming just as tyrannical as the government that was overthrown.

This movement is different in that it was not derived from an ideological or anti-Western debate, but from a populist movement among people working within their own country. Instead of fighting against something (the Shah), they are fighting for something (Mousavi). Perhaps most importantly however is the fact that the Iranians on the streets today are not seeking revolution or the overthrow of the government, but simply a fair say in the electoral process and the rule of law. Finally, in addition to the three differences laid out by the Times I would like to add a fourth: the lack of American involvement in the demonstrations and reform movement. Many have been critical of President Obama’s lack of an assertive response to the protests in Iran, but in order for these protests to be successful it must ultimately be the Iranians themselves who take the reins and create the kind of government that they want. Obama understands this, and so until it is clearer what the final outcome of this situation will be it is in our best interest to allow Iranians to do what they will.

For up-to-the-minute coverage of the events on the ground in Iran, I would recommend Nico Pitney’s live blog on Huffington Post.