Iran: Damaged Democracy

by Ian Buruma Ian Buruma is the author of Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance. He is a professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College. His latest book is the novel The China Lover. 07.07.2009

New York - Even before the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, decided to throttle what little legitimacy was left of Iran's "managed democracy," it was a peculiar system, indeed. Although Iranian citizens had the right to elect their president, the candidates had to be vetted by the Council of Guardians, half of whom were picked by the unelected Supreme Leader.

The only candidates allowed to run were men with impeccable religious credentials, loyal to a regime whose most important decisions are made by unelected clerics. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, chosen by the late Ayatollah Khomeini to be prime minister in 1981, was such a figure.

Mousavi ran as a reformist who said he would strive for greater freedom of the press, more rights for women, and fewer restrictions on the private lives of Iranians. He also hinted at more flexibility in negotiations with the United States.

Yet Mousavi's defeat by the hardliner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in what looked like a rigged electoral process, was greeted by some neo-conservatives in the US with relief. One prominent commentator, Max Boot, took "some small degree of satisfaction from the outcome of Iran's elections," because Obama would now find it harder to stand in the way of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear installations. Since Iran is the enemy (remember George W. Bush's "axis of evil"?), it is better to deal with a president who talks and acts like a crazy thug, than with a reasonable-sounding figure who promises reforms.

This would seem like the height of cynicism, which of course it is. It reminds us of the closeness, in spirit, between extreme neo-cons and communist idealogues. Compromise is anathema to the radical mind. Some radical leftist Muslims, obsessed with their opposition to Western "imperialism" and Israel, saluted Mousavi's defeat, for, as one such activist put it, "the [anti-Zionist] resistance cannot afford a pro-American velvet revolution."

Communists always had a tendency to dismiss the differences between candidates in liberal democracies (let alone "managed" ones). They were just different faces of the same rotten system. In fact, social democrats were regarded as more dangerous than hard-line conservatives, because their moderate left-wing talk only served to postpone the revolution. This kind of thinking helped the Nazis destroy German democracy in the 1930's.

The reaction of Boot, and others of his persuasion, points to a genuine dilemma that always occurs in authoritarian systems that use some semblance of democracy to bolster their legitimacy. What are opposition candidates to do when they are asked to take part in elections that they know they cannot win, or that, even when they can win, will give them only minimal authority? If they agree, they help to legitimize a system in which they do not really believe. If they refuse, they have no influence at all.

There are valid arguments to made for either course. Any chance for people to voice their views, even in rigged elections, is a good thing. And, because democracy is about institutions as much as about individual candidates, it is also good for citizens to exercise their right to vote. Then, when real change does occur, no one can claim that the people "are not ready for it." Still, if voting confers dignity on citizens, participation in a fraud is humiliating.

There is no absolute yardstick on how to behave in these impossible circumstances, so people must judge every election on its merits. Since 85% of Iranian voters decided that it was worth taking part in the last election, their decision must be respected. Although their options were limited, many of them had enough confidence that the reformist candidate would not only get elected, but also make life a little better. This is also why 70% voted for Mohammed Khatami, the reformist president, in 1997.

Khatami, too, had good ideas about press freedom, individual rights, and democratic reforms. They were mostly quashed by the clerics who held ultimate power. It probably did not help that the Bush administration gave up on Khatami. Like some neo-cons today, Bush's foreign policy advisers saw no difference between reformists and hardliners. This undermined Khatami's authority even further.

Mousavi was regarded by many Iranians as a second chance. Unfortunately, Khamenei thought so, too, and made sure that Ahmadinejad held onto his presidency. This was a sickening blow to all Iranians who crave the dignity of democratic politics. But it does not mean that they were wrong, or naïve, to try.

Mousavi's campaign, and its aftermath, showed clearly that those who professed to see no difference between the candidates, except in style and presentation, were wrong: even if the election was rigged, the voices of opposition to clerical authoritarianism were heard. The quiet dignity of the protests that followed did more for Iran's standing in the world than any amount of belligerent posturing by a populist president.

There may have been a more important consequence. The election, the fraud, and the violent crackdown on the subsequent protests revealed, and clearly widened, deep rifts inside the regime. This is the best reason why in most cases it is best to contest elections, even in unpromising circumstances. They expose cracks in the wall of dictatorial power. Ahmedinejad won the election, but the regime is weakened as a result. Terror can prolong the agony, but in the end an illegitimate regime is doomed.

To persist in the belief that reformists and hardliners are just masks of the same enemy, and to take pleasure in the victory of the latter, is not merely cynical, but is an added insult to a people that has already been humiliated enough.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

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