The scenes from Iran are exciting, and quite unlike anything we’d see come from the capitals of our allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Kuwait. There is a heated election campaign taking place, with young people out on the street trying to bring about change. People are openly stating their opinions, parading campaign posters and slogans, and even using youtube clips to catch current President Ahmadinejad in a lie. Just a couple months ago people expected Ahmadinejad to win an easy first round victory. He’s still the favorite, but it’s no longer a sure thing.
Ahmadinejad’s main rival (four are running in the first round) is Hossein Mousavi. Mousavi is an unlikely agent of change. He is 67 years old, 15 years senior to President Ahmadinejad, and is a former Prime Minister of the Majles. Like all candidates, he had to be vetted by the Guardian Council and allowed to run. But especially women and young Iranians are gathering to support Mousavi out of a belief that Iran has been going the wrong direction, and unnecessarily alienating the West.
Regardless of the outcome, it’s clear that Iran does have vibrant and real political competition, and that the people of Iran have the capacity to work within the system to try to bring change. None of the Arab states in the region even come close, unless you count Iraq’s US supported elections. Yet, while the US maintains alliances with Arab authoritarians, including countries like Saudi Arabia whose secret police keep a tight grip on opposition, Iran is viewed as our enemy, a pariah state that could be seeking nuclear weapons. Cognitive dissonance, anyone — our “enemy” is the region’s only emerging democracy outside Israel?
Iran is in transition. The clerics who guided the revolution and set up an Islamic Republic are aging, and less in control of the culture and politics. They still have complete power to limit the ability of the Majles and President to act if they deem it in contradiction to Islamic law, they routinely disallow hundreds of candidates for President or to the Majles every election, ostensibly for not being good enough Muslims. Mosque and state are unified, not separate, and even if Mousavi surprises everyone and wins, his room to create fundamental change is limited. Moreover, Ahmadinejad is very popular in the provinces, where the population is not only more conservative, but which have received considerable government money in the last four years. That most likely will be enough to counter Mousavi’s popularity in the cities.
Yet even if Ahmadinejad is re-elected, the discontent of the youth and women cannot be ignored. When the Ayatollah Khomeini took over in 1979 there were many rivals for power, and it was not guaranteed that the Shi’ia clerics would dominate. The hostage crisis against the US, followed by an attack from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq helped them consolidate power, but from the start elections were most often won by moderates. Over the years the Guardian Council had to be careful how much to influence politics, recognizing that if the public turned on them, their dominance could be in jeopardy.
They’ve played the balancing act with skill, and learned that tension with the West often works in their favor. Even though glad to be rid of Saddam, the bellicose language used by the Bush Administration against Iran, and threat to expand ‘regime change,’ caused the Iranian people to embrace conservatives in elections to the Majles in 2004, and then to elect Ahmadinejad in 2005. Until then, the moderates had won every national election. The election of Obama in the US has created a new perspective about America, and the anti-western backlash has ceased. One reason Iran’s leaders continue belligerent language against the West and Israel is to provoke a reaction which might be useful to their domestic audience. In the run up to this election, however, the Obama administration has been very careful not to say much.
Iran’s democracy is likely strong enough to withstand any effort by the clerics to move towards more authoritarianism, and vibrant enough to continue to provide steady pressure for change. As the clerical class of the revolution die out, Iran may prove to be the model democracy for the Muslim world that the US hoped Iraq would be. To be sure, Iran is neither Arab nor was it part of the Ottoman Empire. Culturally, it has traditions much better suited towards democratic development than do most Arab states.
The last thing the US should do is allow fear of Iranian nuclear weapons cause us to undertake efforts, or support Israeli efforts, to punish or attack Iran. That could not only significantly set back the cause of Iranian democracy, but also lead to counter measures by Shi’ite militias in Iraq, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah fared very poorly in recent Lebanese elections (pundit Thomas Friedman said about those elections that Obama defeated Ahmadinejad); extremists thrive when the West is bellicose and arrogant, but whither when tensions are reduced.
Moreover, the threat to Israel by any potential Iranian nuclear weapons is virtually nil. Iran’s Guardian Council has been very rational and conservative in their approach to foreign policy, with a goal of enhancing Iran’s regional power. They know that Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons, and that Israel would retaliate against any Iranian attack. The clerics will not risk their country and revolution out of some mad anger at Israel. Beyond that, the fact Iran is not Arab means that the Israeli-Palestinian issue has less emotional impact there than in the Arab world.
In the unlikely but possible event of a Mousavi victory, the US should be ready for a real change in the nature of the relationship, even if Mousavi himself will not be able to control the nuclear program or make radical changes in Iranian government. Countries develop on their own; democracy is rarely imposed from the outside, it grows slowly from below. That is happening in Iran. It’s impossible to watch the rallies and peaceful demonstrations in Iran and not be impressed.