Sunday, January 29, 2006

Running away from reality

Kash Kheirkhah

In an article in NY Times today, Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan blames the US President for calling on Iranians to boycott last June’s presidential election, claiming his endorsement led to the creation of a threat called “Ahmadinejad”:

H.D.: That's right: with what appeared to be the endorsement of President Bush and dozens of American-backed satellite television channels that broadcast in Farsi, the disillusioned young people of Iran effectively took one of the world's most closely watched nuclear programs out of the hands of a reformer and placed it into the hands of a hard-line reactionary.

As simple as that.

With all due respect, such a statement, in my opinion, is positively the furthest from the truth, for Mr Derakhshan seems to view the recent developments in Iran through his own ideological prism which is of disgust for whatever policy the Bush administration adopts and contempt for those both inside and outside Iran who have called for an end to the present regime. That’s why his whole hypothesis is predated on a single message from President Bush and all of three or four political TV channels in Los Angeles (which have proved to be of no authority in the eyes of most Iranians, due to their constant infighting and lack of quality programs), while easily ignoring the sham election process and the growing undertone of frustration with Khatami’s government in the Iranian society that led to Ahmadinejad’s victory.

H.D.: It's true that Iranian elections are not quite democratic, because the unelected Guardian Council reserves the right to bar candidates. But the real problem here is that boycotting semi-democratic elections ultimately will not make such a system more democratic.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the illegitimate winner of a massive vote rigging in the first round of a presidential election that proves, with or without people’s participation, he would have been qualified for the run-off election. As Mr Derakhshan very well knows, even Mahdi Karoubi, former speaker of parliament and presidential hopeful raised a public outcry over being eliminated from the race after sudden changes in the vote count by sending a letter to Iran’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, detailing the election violations and even accusing Khamenei’s son of having a hand in having him eliminated. This kind of election can not be called semi-democratic, nor can it be justified by any means.

H.D.: In Iran last June, the call for a boycott resonated with frustrated and apathetic voters. Many, if not most, moderates and reform advocates stayed home from the polls. And we all know what followed: the philosophy-loving moderate, Mohammad Khatami, was replaced as president by a radical militant, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — a former military commander who presides over one of the most extreme governments post-revolutionary Iran has yet had.

The disillusionment of the young Iranian people is the direct result of the incompetence of a philosophy-loving president who failed to seize upon the strong mandate 20 million Iranians granted him twice. For eight long years, Khatami’s administration remained incapable of performing its most basic duties, blowing one opportunity after another to push through the reform program, leading people to believe their votes had gone down the drain. In the domestic arena, Khatami’s pussyfooting resulted in the imprisonment of a large number of intellectuals and reformers, including one of his own ministers, the shut-down of all reformist newspapers and most importantly, the disqualification of thousands of reformist candidates in the seventh parliamentary elections by the unelected Guardian Council --not to mention that Iranian people's economic situation during Khatami's presidency deteriorated. As for the decisions regarding the nuclear program, it was quite clear that those weren’t his and his government to make. Now to expect a frustrated nation to go through all that and still take part in, not a flawed, but sham election that as President Bush rightly said was one that ignored the basic requirements of democracy or vote for another obviously powerless, ill-fated candidate is nothing but a pure fantasy. I should add here that I don't mean to say that nothing positive happened under Khatami but in general scheme of things, he was a failure and that was certainly the biggest reason why the masses didn't fall for his successor this time around.

H.D.: An American administration that had called on other Middle Eastern populaces to vote in flawed elections greeted the Iranian electoral process with nothing but open disdain. It is worth revisiting this odd judgment call at a time when Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections has raised even more questions about Washington's confused strategy of democracy promotion.

The reason Iraqis went to the polls despite mortal danger was they had real representative from all shades of the political spectrum to choose from. In fact, the elections in Iraq were the most democratic elections held in the Middle East in 50 years. As for Palestine, no matter the result, the election process itself wasn’t flawed. The recent elections in countries such as Jordan and Egypt whose leaders are close US allies in the region (and don't support terrorism of course) were also held with at least partial participation of the opposition factions such as Muslim Brotherhood. How about Iran? In Iran everyone outside the power circle is barred from the elections. How could we expect the United States to support such sham elections and how would we expect the educated young Iranians to take part in such a puppet show run by a regime whose only concern is high voter turn-out?

H.D.: If the United States is serious about promoting democratic change in Iran, it needs to try the same approach that brought Iraqis to the polls despite mortal danger. Mr. Bush and his supporters should encourage the people of Iran to participate in the next election. And they should urge Iranians to vote for someone who will make their country more open and democratic, rather than more threatening, as Iran under President Ahmadinejad has become.

Just like former President Muhammad Khatami and some of his reformist supporters, Mr. Derakhshan and the political thinking he represents believe in the principles of the current Iranian regime and toward that end, they would say, do and justify anything to keep it functioning. That's where their problem is. They have some principles and if you don’t like them they have some others—as evident in the second round of the elections when in an unbelievable u-turn, they endorsed former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who among Iranian people is identified with everything evil. They accuse the US of double standards while they practice multiple ones themselves.

I believe President Bush, the Iranian opposition factions and the true reformist figures such as Akbar Ganji all did absolutely the right thing in calling for the last election boycott. But even if they didn’t, such an undemocratic election process, coupled with a crippled, unprincipled and most of all, unpopular reform movement wouldn’t have produced an outcome any different than what we see today. Pinning the current mess in Iran’s politics on a single statement is just running away from reality as Mr. Derakhshan has chosen to do so.