Monday, February 26, 2007

Which Iranians to believe?

Two years ago, upon the victory of Ahmadinejad, Open Democracy published an opinion survey of some of the prominent Iranian scholars and democracy activists outside of Iran. You can access that article here and followup on the resume of those individuals. To read those opinion pieces, which are nto very long, two years after the fact was a fun exercise in comparing the theoretical speculations of intellectuals against the current situation.

The question was:

Iran’s people have elected religious hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by a large margin over ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani. Whose victory is it, whose defeat?

Here are the most notable highlights, in my opinion.

Bahram Rajaee, director of international and external relations for the American Political Science Association.

... Ahmadinejad’s accession means the hardliners no longer depend on political alliances with other factions. They have learned from their mistakes of the past decade not to need a Rafsanjani or a Khatami to survive. [N: This is proving to be false] The interference by state institutions and militants in the electoral process, unprecedented in post-1979 history, helps contribute to broad suspicions that Ahmadinejad’s final vote is suspect.
... The Tehran mayor’s triumph opens the way for untrammeled authoritarian rule in Iran led by an uncompromising minority. It could be a prelude to a worsening environment where resistance to the regime begins to shift outside the system as its legitimacy erodes beyond repair.
Such a development will have disastrous consequences for peaceful democratization in Iran. It raises the spectre of the country descending into an unpredictable spiral of repression, isolation, and instability. Moreover, it will place Iran squarely on the road to crisis with the United States. Some welcome this crisis and its likelihood of a military confrontation that will put an end to the mullahs’ rule. I am not insensitive to this sentiment, but see little prospect of such external intervention doing much to bolster democracy in Iran.
Trita Parsi, Foreign policy advisor to United States congressman, Bob Ney, the co-founder and president of the National Iranian American Council.

The signs of the disconnect between the needs of Iran’s general population and existing platforms of political transformation have always been there, but many of us failed to understand their full extent. Perhaps we viewed Iran too much from a self-centred perspective where our own wants and needs shaped our analysis, at the expense of the expressed desires of people from classes we did not identify with as easily.

This certainly does not mean that people do not want social, political, and economic reform, but rather that the economic part of it takes precedence over the other – at least for now.
In many ways, this vindicates the argument of those who opposed the policy of isolating Iran economically a decade ago. They argued that democracy in Iran will take root when economic development has created a sizeable middle class who will serve as a cushion against the populist demands of the lower classes and the corruption and monopolist tendencies of the ruling class.

The middle class, in this perspective, would become the constituency with a direct, vested interest in Iran’s political liberalisation, to the extent that their political demands would take precedence over their economic concerns.

This middle class has never had a fair chance to develop – mainly due to the mismanagement and corruption of the rulers in Tehran, but also due to Washington’s policy of isolating Iran and preventing it from advancing economically.

Iran’s step to the right in the presidential elections may further boost the agenda of those in Washington who wish to isolate Iran. This will only serve even more to hamper the country’s ability to create a sustainable democracy from within.

The conclusion can only be that the disconnect of the pro-isolationists from the desires of the Iranian people is even greater than the disconnect of those who granted too much emphasis to their desire for social freedoms. [This guy is just brilliant!]
Bahman Kalbasi, a student who was imprisoned in Iran due to his political activities
Here we have a simple, everyday guy who speaks in populist slogans and promises, who is at the same time deeply religious, and whose followers and supporters are the worst religious fundamentalists Iran has. When he assumes power he will not be the real decision-maker; the supreme leader and other men in the shadows will make the real decisions for him. Does this all ring a bell? A bit like George W Bush?
Ramin Jahanbegloo, Iranian philosopher

We are now witnessing a resurgent authoritarian populism in Iran, caused by political factionalism. However, the pragmatic-technocratic faction led by Rafsanjani still possesses tremendous power in the Expediency Council and in the arena of foreign relations.

The new president faces serious challenges inside and outside Iran. Those who voted for him expect him to solve problems such as inflation, unemployment and corruption. Others who worry about the delicate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme seem to fear an increased tension with Washington and possible United States military intervention.
For the time being, the issues atop Ahmadinejad’s agenda are economic justice and redistribution of wealth. At the same time, we can expect a significant turning back of civil society’s important gains of the last several years, paving the way eventually for a full-spectrum Islamic society based on sharia law. [These kind of statements were perhaps why Jahanbegloo was arrested in Iran on charges of spying for neoconservatives. Isn't it ironic?] One way or another, the last word will be in the hands of Iranian civil society, which has thus far survived Iran’s political factionalism.

Abbas Milani, co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution and director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University. [another brilliant one!]

In authoritarian societies like Iran, a transition to democracy requires, amongst other things, a rift in the ranks of ruling despots. The two rounds of the 2005 presidential elections have created and exposed cracks in the monolith of power; they have shown a system riven with structural fissures at the bottom and factionalism at the top.
in the period between the two rounds of the election, three of the four top candidates defied Khamenei’s orders and talked openly about what they called the flawed (if not in practical terms rigged) election. One of the three candidates was brave enough to name Khamenei’s own son as a culprit. There are increasing signs that a de facto “United Front Against Fascism” is forming in Iran and it might well have in its ranks some of the erstwhile pillars of power in the regime.
The attempt by the right-wing cabal that masterminded the Ahmadinejad victory to solve Iran’s serious economic problems by reverting to old and tired populism is sure to fail. It will eventually deprive this group even of its small base of support amongst the poor in the city and countryside, whose piety and deprivation has made them dependent on the state. Bereft of this base, it will have only the military and security forces left to it, and that is hardly enough to maintain power in Iran today.

This presidential election has created room for cautious optimism, and for doubting the stalwarts of despotism who think they have successfully killed the democratic and reform movement in Iran.
Roshanak Ameli-Tehrani, founder of Payvand Institute [what a brilliant woman!]

In any modern sustainable democracy, three broad categories of institutions exist: the state, the private sector, and civil society. The most successful of the societies that have traversed the often long and winding road of “habituating” democracy are those with the most actively participatory civil societies.

Iran’s modern path toward democracy, a path that can be traced back to the constitutional revolution (1905-09), has been largely engineered and led by elites. Only since the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 has civil society truly begun to take shape in Iran within the broader populace.

For reformists and moderates to regain trust and prominence, they must cast wider nets of inclusion and find a common narrative – one based on socio-economic goals that are inclusive of and relevant to the Iranian majority. During the coming period of regrouping, civil society will be vital to the creation of this narrative. A strong civil society encourages participation, creates synergy and allows access to resources – especially for the lower economic strata.
...The private sector and the upper class in Iran must also support such efforts....

The elections also signal a call for action to the Iranian diaspora. Depending on the source, the size of the Iranian diaspora ranges from 2-6 million, with the vast majority living in developed nations amongst the upper socio-economic strata. It is time for the diaspora to shift its dialogue away from political divides to a shared narrative – one based on actively promoting and preserving a viable civil society in Iran. The diaspora can no longer assume itself separate from the 69 million Iranians living in Iran and wait for the reformists to bring about change.

On this wise note, I end this post.

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