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June 20, 2005

IRO Head-Patting in Iran
Posted by Michael Signer

On Iran's deteriorating elections, a very interesting analysis today by's Dan Froomkin suggests President Bush's weirdly defiant attitude on Social Security can also be applied to the situation in Iran. 

To recap:  last week, the clergy-based Guardians Council, who has the power to decide who may run for President in Iran, decided that several reformist candidates were no longer eligible to run.  Demonstrating the same deft touch he employed marketing the war in Iraq to America and the world, President Bush immediately struck out on the warpath, virtually shouting in a statement:

Today, the Iranian regime . . . shuts down independent newspapers and websites and jails those who dare to challenge the corrupt system. It brutalizes its people and denies them their liberty.

America believes in the independence and territorial integrity of Iran. America believes in the right of the Iranian people to make their own decisions and determine their own future. America believes that freedom is the birthright and deep desire of every human soul. And to the Iranian people, I say: As you stand for your own liberty, the people of America stand with you.

So.  Was President Bush really trying to trigger a wave of America-loving popular reformist revolt in Iran?  Or was he just trying to bolster flagging public confidence here at home in the clumsy democratization experiment currently underway in Iraq?

Well, whatever his intentions were (not trying to be too mysterious here), the President was rewarded with large increases in the turn-out among Iran's conservative base.  As Brian Murphy of the AP reports,

The sharp barbs from President Bush were widely seen in Iran as damaging to pro-reform groups because the comments appeared to have boosted turnout among hard-liners in Friday's election -- with the result being that an ultraconservative now is in a two-way showdown for the presidency.  "I say to Bush: `Thank you,'" quipped Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi. "He motivated people to vote in retaliation."

The first-round elections on Friday yielded two candidates:  the mild reformer and former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and the hard-line conservative Mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  The populist Ahmadinejad -- running on a platform of reducing poverty -- finished a surprising second.  Reformists cried foul, saying that many of his votes had been bought and paid for.

Today, a partial recount was ordered by the Guardians Council, allegedly to allay reformist fears that the vote on Friday had been rigged.  The action, in combination with President Bush's blunderbuss insertion of the "American issue" into the election, will hardly serve to strengthen the reformists' hand.

As I've discussed here, progressives should be supporting democratization, abundantly and generously, and we could even be running to the left of the President on the issue, especially in places like Russia. 

But there's an utter imbalance between the Administration's rhetoric and its practice.  When it comes to foreign policy (as opposed to domestic policy, where the tin ear is turned inward, rather than outward), the Administration isn't interested in persuasion -- it just wants praise.  Just as the State of the Union address was dominated by grandiose rhetoric the Administration never had any intention of memorializing with actual actions.  As Marisa Katz wrote in TNR not too long ago:

Many longtime players in the democratization industry report a dangerous mismatch between the ambitious--and, at times, selfcongratulatory--language coming from the White House and the financial and diplomatic investment the Bush administration is making to back up its promises. Beyond Iraq, the professional democracy promoters say, not much has changed. Money pledged has not come through. Claims about the U.S. commitment to supporting democracy movements worldwide are not reflected in budget numbers or in meetings with authoritarian leaders. Meanwhile, activists say, all the public grandstanding in Washington is actually making democracy promotion harder.

The President's remarks last Friday sought noisily to take credit where a little hidden-hand diplomacy (subtle advocacy on behalf of Rafsanjani, say) would have helped American interests more. 

Foreign Policy has a great (if pollyana-ish) article by the scholar Hadi Semati suggesting that, no matter their result, the Iranian elections signify an opening of the electoral system there, by virtue of the increased dialogue and public attention to the issues.  Semati writes:

Hardliners are fighting among themselves, a veteran conservative is reshaping himself to new realities, and a reformist candidate is breaking new political ground. The unprecedented openness and competition allows reform-oriented Iranians to claim at least a moral victory in this election, even if their candidates end up losing at the polls.

I'm intrigued -- if not totally convinced -- by this argument.  But if there's a even a small chance that Iran will progress through process rather than result, America needs to sensibly cultivate the process through diplomacy as well as demand.  This Administration always tries to convince us that their defiant decisions will make history.  But it's failing in the essentially nuanced and subtle exercise of tending the flower of democracy in the weed-filled wasteland of post-revolutionary Iran. 

I'm all for making history.  But if it's a history that features a newly emboldened Iran, where the 1979 revolutionaries feel it's time yet again for another revolt against the West and the U.S. -- well, sometimes it's better not to make news.


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