19 June 2009

The Supreme Leader's Lesson for the Day

As an unelected head of state, the "Supreme Leader" of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, ideally should stand above the partisan fray of elected offices. However, the Islamic Republic of Iran remains a self-consciously revolutionary state. With revolutionary consciousness comes a hypersensitivity to "counter-revolution," a slippery slope of sensibility that tempts one to treat any dissent from leadership as fraught with treason. Revolutionaries distrust liberalism because liberalism values dissent as an end unto itself. To the extent that Mir Hossein Mousavi and his party were the "liberals" in the Iranian presidential election, the Supreme Leader may be presumed to be biased against them and in favor of the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This is as far as I'll go to establish a motive for Khamenei or the Guardian Council to rig the vote in favor of Ahmadinejad.

Khamenei delivered a rare Friday sermon in Tehran today, with Ahmadinejad in attendance. Someone has posted a transcript of the sermon, leaving out some religious matter at the start of it.The transcript isn't inconsistent with summations of the speech that have appeared in the American news media. The Supreme Leader made some gestures of conciliation toward the opposition without conceding any doubt in the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad's victory. He emphasized, correctly as far as I know, that all the candidates, Mousavi included, support the fundamental idea of the Islamic Republic. He chided excesses of negative campaigning on all sides, criticizing alleged slanders against Ahamadinejad as well as slanders from Ahmadinejad's side against certain prominent Iranians who supported Mousavi. But he emphasized that the nation had seen a free exchange of views. As far as I know, having seen clips of televised debates between the two leading candidates, this is correct.

But Khamenei's attempt to refute the stolen-election charge was pretty feeble. His view is that Ahmadinejad's victory margin is too big to be faked. Had he won by only a million or so votes, the ayatollah suggested, then we could ask questions. That may have been a dig at the 2000 and 2004 U.S. elections, though he didn't cite those specifically. Since Ahmadinejad is said to have won by 11,000,000 votes, Khamenei says that could only reflect overwhelming support for the incumbent at the grass roots. While the Supreme Leader is correct to observe that the Western media have been predicting in bad faith for weeks ahead of time that the election would be stolen, his numerical reasoning will do little to calm sincere Western observers who question the result. After all, the most blatantly stolen elections in the world are those in which the leader and his party claim mandates of 90% or greater. Granting that those elections (as practiced in Baathist Iraq, for instance) didn't exactly follow the same rules that prevailed in Iran, they still show that the size of the victory doesn't prove jack about the democratic legitimacy of a regime whose commitment to liberal principles is in other respects greatly open to question.

When Khamenei says that disputes about vote counting shouldn't be settled in the streets, he's only saying exactly what leaders in any country would say after a similarly-disputed election. If supporters of Al Gore had hit the streets, as some wanted but Gore did not, in the winter of 2000-1, we can guess what Republicans and many in Gore's own party would say. But because Americans have assigned Iran to the category of "evil" regimes, and American politicians and pundits have assumed for themselves the right to question the legitimacy of all such regimes, they demand that Mousavi's supporters keep up the "people power" pressure in the desperate hope that the entire edifice of the Islamic Republic will come crashing down Berlin-Wall style. As Khamenei put it, the Americans, the British and the Zionists want Iran to go the way of the Republic of Georgia, where "people power" put in a pro-Western, anti-Russian government, -- one which the Supreme Leader probably sees as a puppet state of the U.S. He makes quite clear that he won't allow that to happen, even as the Mousavi faction announces plans for another demonstration to take place tomorrow.

Leaving aside the question of Americans' right to judge what happens in Iran, let's ask an objective question: what if Mousavi's supporters have or find irrefutable evidence that Ahamdinejad or Khamenei stole an election that was rightfully Mousavi's? What do they do then? Common sense suggests that if the rulers won't play by the rules, neither should the opposition. But what are their options. The regime has fanatic supporters; imagine talk-radio listeners who actually have the courage to fight for their beliefs, albeit backed up by the government. The basij, for starters, has already proven its readiness to beat down dissent that it equates with treason or immorality. I'm not sure that Iran is the kind of environment where Gandhi's approach could prevail. If the opposition decides that the government is no longer legitimate, it had better be prepared to use more than people power unless they're only interested in a suicidal form of moral exhibitionism. It's alleged that Mousavi has powerful supporters within the higher ranks of the regime. Depending on how powerful they are, the only practical means of rectifying the situation might be a coup d'etat, which isn't exactly a ratification of democracy itself. The only real options may be grudging acquiescence or a civil war that the opposition most likely isn't prepared to win. That's the sort of situation in which some would say the Iranians need outside help, but the situation next door in Iraq has shown that foreign intervention is no substitute for the people taking responsibility for their own freedom at whatever cost they're willing to pay. It's time for the Iranians to do the math.

1 comment:

d. eris said...

"After all, the most blatantly stolen elections in the world are those in which the leader and his party claim mandates of 90% or greater."

I've always found this sort of charade fascinating, in the way it allows for a kind of constitutive exception to total support which, I assume, is supposed to make the farce somehow more palatable or believable. I recently read/heard somewhere that North Korean state media reports on a game of golf played Kim Jong Il stated that the dear leader golfed a 19 on an 18 hole course!