From all appearances, President Ahmadinejad is in a fight for his political life in Iran against substantial opposition in a four-way race that has focused as much on internal economic issues as on foreign relations. The incumbent has been slammed for embarrassing the nation through his indulgence in Holocaust skepticism, and he's been caught in a sizable error about the country's inflation rate. He has had to confront at least his most popular opponent in a televised debate. But he still has huge support for his populist domestic agenda and his tough-guy attitude toward the rest of the world.
Enemies of Iran will blow it all off. It's all a sham, they'll say, as long as the ayatollahs have the power to keep whomever they want off the ballot. If there isn't a candidate calling for the abolition of the Islamic Republic or unconditional reconciliation with the U.S., that absence must prove that Iran is a tyranny despite appearances. Isn't it awful, after all? That accursed nation has an electoral structure that winnows out the most insurgent candidates and limits effective choices to a narrow range of establishment-approved politicians. Americans are inclined to see this as "evil" because they see the will of wicked men behind it. But doesn't the American Bipolarchy work to the same basic effect? There may be no obvious malign will behind the curtain, but a system has evolved that marginalizes anyone who doesn't want to deal with the two giant fundraising machines which, we must recall, do not owe their place in the system to any design by the Founders and Framers. There's still room for genuine choice in each country's system, but the range of choices is limited in either case by seemingly arbitrary forces.
The American case seems more democratic to us because the American people are, in a way, complicit in it because of their complacency and their habits of brand-name loyalty. Americans can tell themselves that we have chosen the Bipolarchy and regularly reaffirm our choice, and that all objections to it are only "sour grapes" carping. They look at Iran and can't see when or how the Iranian people chose their electoral system, so they conclude that Iran isn't free. We had better not sugarcoat things: for many people, leaving elections aside, Iran definitely isn't a free country. But if we're going to question the freedom of their elections because of the impediments that exist for ambitious dissidents, I wonder if we'll find a truly free country anywhere on earth.