Friday, June 17, 2005

The Lessons of Friday's election in Iran

The results of the elections are out. We as part of the reform movement did not fail, but we did not pass either. We kind of performed unsatisfactorily, i.e. we must now work hard to actually pass at the next round. My contention is that we must work harder to pass.

A friend of mine called me after the election results were out and asked: “Since we participated in the elections but lost it anyway, what do we tell those friends who had advocated boycotting it. They are now singing the ‘we told you so’ song.” I calmed him down and told him that it is the boycotters who must be held accountable, not you or us.

Let’s assume that Iranians will all boycott the runoff elections next Friday and some one like Ahmadinejad wins them – an unlikely event considering the political and social maturity that we now enjoy. What is the agenda of the boycotters then? What do they plan to do? How do they plan to respond to Mr Shariatmadari’s threats, begun three years ago, that they intend to completely exterminate the supporters of regime change? How do they intend to deal with Saeed Imami’s gangs who have mobilized to stamp out their opposition at the runoff and regain their lost “battle bunkers”?

I think they can only have one answer: let things get worse so that either people will start another revolution, or the US will invade the country. Their approach of boycotting the elections leads to nothing but this.

But if we as a group do not wish such an outcome, are we responsible for what has happened or may happen? I say let us deal with these issues in a reformist way and through well-defined principles of reformism. We believe a reformist is a person who like Mohammad Khatami, believes that any social change is possible if you are with people and it is with their vote and wishes that demands rise and are fulfilled. Without them, political work is flawed and no real progress is made. Yes, people can be silenced by forced, but they cannot be coerced into becoming supporters of democracy and modern values. This only leads to hell.

One of the lessons of Friday’s elections is that in Iran there are still millions who vote to candidates that have been picked by their religious leader(s). Even though this is a violation of democratic principles and practices, what should a democrat do when they happen? Suppress the voters? A friend called me the other day and said some people were now considering leaving the country. At least they are not ignoring the realities of Iranian politics, i.e. accepting that there are millions out there who follow the orders of their religious leaders. Yes, this is a principle we must affirm: we have to face and accept reality and the real political terrain that exists in this country and lives among its people, which is that we have millions who vote based on the views of their religious leaders. There is a saying in Persian that even if you look away from a mirror, your image in it does not go away. So by turning a blind eye to the realities of Iran does not change them.

Let’s assume that the Guardians Council did hire some three hundred thousand agents three years ago to enforce its wishes, and that Dr Firoozabadi the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff did in fact order the Baseej milita (under the Revolutionary Passdaran Guards) to go out and vote for a particular candidate (a violation of election rules), and that the supporters of Ahmadinejad did all the other things that are attributed to them, and which finally boosted his votes. Even if these are true, what are we democrats supposed to do now?

We cannot ignore the fact that millions people voted for him. That hardliners etc resort to such tactics, is unfortunately part of politics. If we love Iran it is not because of the ruins at Persepolis or the sand of its desert. It is because of its people. So we must work with these very people and promote change through them. That is the only solution to our elections structure and culture. Educate the masses.

I think our task is to strengthen non-governmental organizations, people’s associations, groups, political parties etc and improve the activities of these groups so that they gradually soften the minds of people and make them aware of their rights. In short, enlighten the masses. Unless we make people aware of their rights, building new facades will not change their minds. The more we open our eyes to see and accept the realities of our society, the better we shall be able to do our job and accomplish our goals. Nothing else will really change the outcome of elections, etc.

Interestingly, the order to “vote and mobilize” that went to the religious groups is similar to what happened in Iraq, soon after the US occupation. Otherwise Ayatollah Sistani would not have emerged as the country’s strongman. Why do we think that in a country whose oil wells have been in the hands of the clergy for the past 25 years, the power of the clerics is any less than that of ayatollah Sistani’s, who had no resources available to him and who during Saddam’s thirty-year rule had his supporters killed and who had accepted all kinds of restrictions to his life and work? But the very same US that invaded Iraq and Afghanistan pushed for democratic elections and accepted its rules and outcome, with the belief that the open economic and political climate would eventually increase the awareness of people. It is only through cultural awareness practices that democracy can flourish and become institutionalized. Nothing can stop this. Coups d’etat will not do the job, as we saw most recently in Algeria.

Our first step therefore is to establish internal unity among the reformists. This is something that was absent in our last elections. What makes Ahmadinejad different from all the other candidates and election participants is that he is the only candidate for the status-quo, and in fact for return to the conditions of eighteen years ago. All the other candidates and their supporters can be grouped as those who wanted some form of change and reform. The reformist camp was even larger and included those who wanted to boycott the elections and those who wanted to vote in them only to initiate structural changes to the existing political system, i.e. to the status quo. But while similar in goal and agenda, they were split in the number of candidates they presented. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, as a single candidate, represented all those who were unhappy with Khatami’s 8 years and Rafsanjani’s 8 years before that. They spoke with one voice.

In any elections, the group that is most united and unified wins the race. Twenty percent supported Ahmadinejad and won the elections with a little help from the Guardian’s Council and the Baseej militia. The reformist group would have won with a greater share had it rallied around no more than two candidates. Unity, therefore, is the first rule to consider under the circumstances.

Since 1979, there have been those who believe that any vote for any candidate in any elections in Iran amounts to supporting the regime as a whole. The reasoning that presidential elections are for a candidate to take the executive helm for the next four years has borne no fruit. Two groups have insisted on the elections-regime belief: the political right, which after every election has said what the supreme leader also said just two days ago, and the opposition. For the last 25 years we have been hearing the first group say the regime was once more proven legitimate, after every election, while the second group has said the number of voters is in fact a sham, that nobody voted and so the regime has no legitimacy. Each side has entrenched itself into that position.

I think our elections are like most elections held around the world (except for the intervention of the Guardians Council and the Baseej milita which is not a democratic act) in which campaigning, unity among groups, etc are the determinant factors. In Iran too, it has been a fact over the past eight years that the group with better organization, wins the elections. Not the group that enjoys the most support but better organization.

There is another similarity between elections in Iran and other places. In any country, even the most progressive ones, when a candidate promises to fill the pockets of the voters with some monetary benefits and swears upon a holy book to actually fulfill it, s/he will most certainly get lots of votes! So it is not a coincidence that Galibaf and Karubi got more votes than Moin. Moin’s idealistic promises of freeing political prisoners, bringing democracy and airing progressive ideals lost color when compared with Galibaf and Karoubi’s promise of subsidies and changes in people’s the daily lives. If Moin’s promises made sense, they did so only to those very individuals who decided to boycott the elections!

I write this with a reminder that the Friday elections were far from democratic principles. Still, even if the Guardians Council had not intervened in the process, the group with the strongest solidarity and unity would have won the elections. In our elections of course there was no freedom of the press, no freedom of association or political parties (with the exception of the mosque and other religious centers for the hardliners and the conservatists) and many other open instruments were absent. But this is another reason to work to create them with the support and participation of these very people.

And to those who suggest alternative short-cuts and quicker ways to democracy, we simply say please allow us be against revolution and foreign military intervention.

Massoud Behnoud is a seasoned Iranian commentator and journalist living in exile.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Akbar and Nasser in a Joyous City

Tehran like any other city carries a life of contradictions too. While it rocks and dances in one part, another laughs in tears.. During the 8-year war with Iraq, there were times when the city was terrorized by bombs and rockets, while some terrorized others. There were days when the US embassy was shut and the city chanted death. But that too passed away and nowadays it is life and happiness that are the rule of the day. Saddam hatting has changed too. The city even welcomes Saddam’s friends! The “Great Satan” has changed face as well. Now the city asks for relations with it, and whats more: its presidential candidates compete to hold the “satan’s” hand, still under the mirage of its life-long war with the satan.

Last week the city bore another paradox. While it was overtaken with joy over its football victory, in some quarters there were those who wept. When Shamsol Vaezin, a one time cell mate of Ganji, arrived at Akbar Ganji’s house, only to find a little girl from across the street, he turned to the Prosecutor’s representative and asked him to call his boss, Prosecutor Saeed Mortezavi and tell him that while the city is in joy and celebrations, they would be out of step to carry out what they had in mind. His face to the little girl, but speaking into his cellphone, Vaezi said “This is not the time to be playing monkey, Mr Alizadeh. You too should join the masses.”

Tehran is a strange city. As the city rocked and danced as its soccer team moved closer to the World Cup finals, a group of students gathered outside Akbar Ganji’s house. He is now a symbol of pain and suffering for Iranian intellectuals, just as are the tri colors of the Iranian flag symbolising the patriotism of the youth. He is the symbol of thought, not prison.

And while the city jubilated, there were still others who stood by the walls of Evin prison in Tehran to perhaps make Nasser Zarafshan, another prisoner who is now on a hunger strike, hear their calls and solidarity. Amongst them were colorful faces, including Fariborz Reis Dana with whom he shared a cell during the pre-revolution days. Zarafshan and Ganji do not deserve to be in darkness while the nation rejoices at its victory. Zarafshan had battled the authorities by defending the survivors of the official serial killers who killed the Foruhars a few years ago. It is ironic the murderers of the Foruhars should be free and celebrating, while the defenders of human rights are hunger and in hiding.

Every generation rises. Ours called for death. The next one that rises will call for life.