As John has already said, U.S. involvement in the Iranian election controversy in any form is unwise. Except for the most generic statements condemning violence and urging peaceful resolution to the crisis, Washington should say nothing, and I mean nothing. After all, whose interests do we serve by having our government speak up? The casual assumption is that condemning foreign election fraud, of which there was probably a great deal in Iran, is both some kind of moral imperative and a strategically wise thing to do in order to aid Mousavi, which in turn is based on another questionable belief that Westerners are somehow obliged to aid him and his supporters. The first part of this is very dubious, and the second is clearly wrong.
Western policing of other nations’ elections, like our annual lectures to other states about the state of their human rights record, is getting very old. We readily assume not only that their elections are in some way our business, but we also usually identify with one side as being somehow more valid, genuine or representative of that country’s people. In Lebanon, the right people won, so the structural biases built into the Lebanese system are not only tolerated in the West, while similarly crude biases in the Iranian system are decried as outrageous, but the fruits of the Lebanese system are celebrated as a great triumph for freedom and light. The absurdity of avidly cheering Mousavi’s supporters, who voted for a man likely instrumental in the creation of Hizbullah, a few days after avidly cheering the so-called “crushing defeat” of Hizbullah in Lebanese elections earlier in the week should be apparent to everyone, but it is not clear to many people at all. Bhadrakumar’s commentary is invaluable in cutting through a lot of unthinking pro-Mousavi chatter:
Mousavi’s electoral platform has been a curious mix of contradictory political lines and vested interests but united in one maniacal mission, namely, to seize the presidential levers of power in Iran. It brought together so-called reformists who support former president Mohammad Khatami and ultra-conservatives of the regime. Rafsanjani is the only politician in Iran who could have brought together such dissimilar factions. He assiduously worked hand-in-glove with Khatami towards this end.
If we are to leave out the largely inconsequential “Gucci crowd” of north Tehran, who no doubt imparted a lot of color, verve and mirth to Mousavi’s campaign, the hardcore of his political platform comprised powerful vested interests who were making a last-ditch attempt to grab power from the Khamenei-led regime [bold mine-DL]. On the one hand, these interest groups were severely opposed to the economic policies under Ahmadinejad, which threatened their control of key sectors such as foreign trade, private education and agriculture [bold mine-DL].
For those who do not know Iran better, suffice to say that the Rafsanjani family clan owns vast financial empires in Iran, including foreign trade, vast landholdings and the largest network of private universities in Iran. Known as Azad there are 300 branches spread over the country, they are not only money-spinners but could also press into Mousavi’s election campaign an active cadre of student activists numbering some 3 million.
The Azad campuses and auditoria provided the rallying point for Mousavi’s campaign in the provinces. The attempt was to see that the campaign reached the rural poor in their multitudes who formed the bulk of voters and constituted Ahmadinejad’s political base. Rafsanjani’s political style is to build up extensive networking in virtually all the top echelons of the power structure, especially bodies such as the Guardian Council, Expediency Council, the Qom clergy, Majlis, judiciary, bureaucracy, Tehran bazaar and even elements within the circles close to Khamenei. He called into play these pockets of influence.
Were we to see a similarly bizarre alignment of the old guard and reformers in another context, quite a few Westerners might denounce the reformers’ alliance with the corrupt and well-connected. Oddly enough, the theme of corruption, which figured so prominently in Ahmadinejad’s attacks on Rafsanjani and Mousavi, has vanished entirely from any discussion of the political realities in Iran. There is undoubtedly a great desire to make the Mousavi forces seem more virtuous, and there is probably reluctance to endorse a criticism that Ahmadinejad has made, but just because someone’s enemies use the charge of corruption opportunistically and hypocritically doesn’t mean that the charge is baseless, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the charge doesn’t have a political impact. How would the election controversy look if we viewed it as a contest between Iran’s Huey Long and the representatives of an entrenched economic elite? Would Western sympathies shift at all? Would Westerners be less inclined to champion the cause of Mousavi as a result? Either way, we should all reflect on how easily we are biased in favor of one side or another in a foreign election based on partial, tendentious or misleading characterizations of the vying factions.
We pick sides like this all the time, and when we do it is almost always arbitrary, ill-informed and mistaken. For various reasons, one side in a contest is deemed to be more “pro-Western,” which occasionally even has the virtue of being true, and this side’s victory is then lauded as a great step forward, and anything preventing that victory is deemed inherently suspicious and illegitimate. In many cases, there really is fraud being perpetrated by the other, “anti-Western” side, and I don’t doubt that this is true to some extent in Iran, but the truly incomprehensible thing for so many Westerners is the possibility that the authoritarian populist whom Washington loathes actually commands majority support in his own country and could probably win without fraud. Why would such a person commit fraud and use violence to increase the scale of a victory that was already in his hands? Ask Hugo Chavez or Vladimir Putin. They know the answer, and the answer is fairly straightforward. The reason for doing this is to acquire and consolidate power. One way to do this is to provoke the opposition, bait them into resistance and then pose as the defender of social and political order. The Kremlin has been doing this to Russian liberals for the better part of a decade. If these were people deeply concerned about legitimacy as we think of it, they would have respect for the law. There is, however, no contradiction between seeking democratic mandate and engaging in lawlessness. The two are more allied than we like to believe. Indeed, what are we seeing from the protesters except an expression of the conviction that they are the rightful majority, which entitles them to disregard the formal law so long as they are fighting for the recognition of their votes?
According to the conventionally circulated myth of the last two decades and more, democracy is supposed to yield more reasonable, acceptable governments whose members are more like us and who are not as hostile to us. If this does not happen, it can only be explained by fraud or taken as proof that such-and-such a state is not a “real democracy.” On the contrary, again and again from Russia to Venezuela we see that these states are democracies, but they do not possess meaningful liberal, constitutional orders. Majoritarian democracy by itself looks rather unpleasant and unattractive, and this will simply not do for an entire establishment that has raised the word and the increasingly amorphous meaning of that word into idols. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t also fraud, but that there is an important difference between lawbreaking, illiberal democrats who abuse the levers of power to benefit their faction and those who want to destroy representative democratic elements in their political system.
Andrew has called for Obama to demand an inquiry into the election. If Khamenei has already done this, for whatever reason, Obama’s call to do the same would be redundant and possibly even harmful. I suppose it would be potentially harmful only if we assume that a goal of U.S. policy should be to ensure that Iran has had a fair election, but if that is not one of Washington’s goals its public statements on the election outcome would then simply be irrelevant. One of the great problems with a foreign policy that takes global “leadership” as a given is that it seems to compel the U.S. government to have an official view on every event and crisis around the world. The idea that there are events that have nothing to do with us, and which we have no business concerning ourselves with, is so alien to our policymakers that I am fairly sure that it never occurs to them. Certainly, if it ever did, they would dismiss it immediately as unacceptable “inaction” in a “time of crisis.” Discretion sometimes truly is the better part of valor.