Power and Protest, in Iran and at Home

A long time ago in a different life, when the Iranian Islamic Revolution was less than a decade old, I was a student at the small New England college where Mansour Farhang taught (and still teaches) political science. Farhang had been the Iranian ambassador to the UN in the early days of the revolt against the Shah, before Khomeini's radical agenda was fully understood, before the ouster of the first post-revolutionary elected president, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. Farhang resigned his post when the Iranian government refused to release the American embassy hostages, and went into exile. In the 1990s, he made the unpleasant discovery that he had something in common with Salman Rushdie: The Islamic Republic had put a price on his head.

Anyway, Farhang once said to me (I'm quoting from 20-year-old memory): "The idea that the revolt against the Shah would result in an Islamic state and the rule of the ayatollahs would have astonished the educated classes who were the Shah's main opposition. No one would have thought that possible in Iran. No one would have thought that the triumph of the reactionaries could have been so complete."

Reading the tremendous news from Tehran, I'm wondering if we will soon be marveling at the inversion of that grim statement. "No one would have thought that the triumph of liberal democracy in Iran could have been so complete."

I wish I could say that I think this likely. A lot more goes into stabilizing liberal democracy than goes into stabilizing autocracy, and liberal institutions take a long time to build. It's unclear to me that the courageous and outraged protesters in Iran truly want an end to the Islamic Republic, although they may well want an end to this Islamic Republic and to this Supreme Leader. Their nighttime cri de coeur, hurled from the rooftops, is, after all, "Allahu Akhbar!" American conservatives who believe that any resistance to tyranny somehow must carry an American trademark would do well to remind themselves that theocracy is incompatible with liberal democracy. Theocracy insists on absolute truth as the key to absolute power; democracy is the painful and contingent working-out of human problems through human institutions and human compromises. The reserve argument of an appeal to a higher power is profoundly anti-liberal.

Mir Hossein Moussavi, the accidental champion of the righteous crowds now taking on the religious Basij militias (and soon to take on the fearsome Revolutionary Guards, shock troops of the culture of 1979) was himself an architect of the '79 revolution, as was his powerful patron, former president Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani is a moderate only when standing next to the most reactionary among the clerics. There has been bad blood between Supreme Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Rafsanjani for some time. Are we now witnessing the public results of hidden political infighting at the highest levels? But looking at it that way pays too little respect to the people in the streets. Political infighting combined with unexpected and unmeasured popular discontent can create an explosive situation far beyond any politician's intent.

Reform, clean government, perhaps a slight relaxation of the stern religious codes of the Iranian state were on Moussavi's agenda; overturning the Islamic Republic never was. In the midst of this uprising, Moussavi said "In this road, we are not up against the Basij members; Basijis are our brothers. In this road, we are not up against the Revolutionary Guards members; they are protectors of our Revolution and regime."

Okay, I read the praise of the Basiji and the Guards as an attempt to win them over; that could be just shrewd tactics. But that "protectors of our Revolution and regime" part is more worrisome. Moussavi is, at best, a man getting swept up in events that have gone far beyond anything he -- a revolutionary enforcer with a lot of blood on his hands -- ever envisioned. One of the implications of that is that he and his followers (or are the crowds his leaders?) do not have the organization in place to have any chance of taking on the might of the Iranian state and military establishment.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hardcore mystic and fanatic who is the public face of the real power in Iran, Khamenei, is not an isolated nor an unpopular figure. He has a great deal of genuine support among the Iranian poor, who feel that he was one of the few politicians who ever listened to them, and, yes, among intellectuals and the urban elite too (and he has a reputation for being personally incorruptible, no small thing among the Iranian political class). However this turns out, an enormous swathe of Iranian society is going to be furious.

Let us not be so foolish -- as both George W. Bush and Barack Hussein Obama have been -- as to think that everyone in the world is just like us, and wants the same things that we Americans do (do we even all want the same things, even the same basic things?).

But no matter what happens, these protests are glorious. The depth of the protesters' anger and their willingness to put their lives on the line suggest the intensity of repression they have been living with for far too long. Watching them is to recall the power and passion of the uprisings against communist tyranny of 1989, many years in the making but bursting forth with spontaneous beauty and power.

It is also to recall that in at least one country, Romania, a seemingly popular uprising turned out to be merely a cover for a palace coup d'etat, the old boss exchanged for a slightly less insane new boss, with many years of pain to follow before any semblance of freedom could really take root. Still, the reckoning with the Ceausescus had to come before democracy had any chance at all.

1989 was a year of disaster as well as of triumph. Will Azadi Square be remembered as we now remember Wenceslas Square in Prague? Or as we remember Tiananmen Square in Beijing, in the same year? In the hands of the autarchs, power is nothing more than the exercise of power, and they have the guns and the tanks.

Does any of this mean anything? Tehran is not Prague, and it's not Bucharest. It's not Beijing. It's Tehran. Let us honor these protesters for their heroism, and let us hope -- for their sake, not for ours -- that they understand that they will never be free under a supernatural mandate for earthly governance. There are some signs that, at least for a segment of the protesters -- we can't know how many, or what percentage -- this could be the case.

The conservative loudmouths in this country who are demanding that President Obama give more passionate support to the uprising don't know anything about Iran. Contrary to conservative belief, America is not widely admired as a beacon of freedom in many parts of the world, and any attempt to frame the protesters' demands as part of an American-sponsored set of ideals would be to destroy their credibility with great numbers of their countrymen. When Bush, that famously incurious incompetent, branded Iran as part of the "axis of evil," he did great harm to liberal forces in Iran by making it easy for the clerics to brand them as puppets of America. Although the State Department made millions of dollars in grants available to Iranian democratic and civil society groups, they were unable to accept this money after that remark. It would have been the kiss of death for them. It should not be lost on American right-wingers -- although it probably will be -- that the crowds in Tehran have been seen carrying posters with the twinned images of Moussavi and Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically-elected, reformist Prime Minister who was overthrown by a CIA-led coup in 1953.

A few gripping and immediate words from Tehran. I know that everyone is looking at YouTube now, but I like words.

Now I'd like to talk about something else.

The protesters in Iran inspire us, but they also shame us. They are willing to risk their very lives in defense of the integrity of an election -- and this from a people who have never known anything like democracy except, arguably, for brief periods between 1906 and 1925 and between 1951 and 1953 (it is to the enormous credit of President Obama that he publicly came clean about the widely-known role of the CIA in Mossadegh's overthrow in his recent Cairo speech, and about its unforeseen and unintended consequences).

So my question is: While we cheer for the protesters, do we feel any chagrin for the fact that we, Americans, with our proud history and heritage of democracy, the truest and most open democracy in the world -- that we stood by in 2000 when a presidential election was blatantly stolen? And yes, we really do, all of us, know that it was stolen (if you think you don't think it was, try reading this, and then take the challenge at the end of the chapter). And yes, it still rankles. Because that's not supposed to happen in America.

I am certainly not putting the 2000 election in the same category of outrage as the Iranian revolutionary regime. That would be an insult to the people in the streets of Tehran (and, apparently, Isfahan and Tabriz and many other cities). Florida 2000 was an anomalous outrage imposed on a democracy; revolutionary Iran is fundamentally unfree, at every level of organization. But the 2000 election matters.

I remember watching the election results in 2008. It was so profoundly moving to me that although Obama was obviously not Bush's favored candidate, after the election Bush congratulated him and pledged to work for a smooth transition. So did Condoleezza Rice (and despite her political differences, the sheer joy in her face as she remarked on the election of the first black President of the United States was something to see). We take these kind of things for granted in America; but many -- most -- people in the world cannot.

And then I recalled 2000, and the bitterness returned.

Florida '00 matters in ways that are more than just emotional. A great deal flows from the Bush administration's contempt for the law, and for the American people. An administration that stole an election could shun any measure of accountability (does anyone recall that Bush, when asked in the 2004 debates if there was anything he regretted having done as president, could only say that he regretted hiring certain individuals who had let him down? This was after "bring 'em on"). An administration that stole an election could take unprecedented measures to operate in secrecy, and to keep its operations secret for many years after leaving office.

An administration that stole an election was able to ignore the constitution and the rule of law when it came to torture and "extreme rendition" to countries that our government knew perfectly well engage in torture. It could insist on its right to order warrantless wiretapping (and I emphasize that sensible liberals were not opposed to wiretapping before getting a warrant in a true terrorist emergency, as the right-wingers so smeared us; what we were opposed to was wiretapping without a warrant at any point, even ex-post-facto; the total power of the state to operate in secret, with no accountability. Which is something that traditional conservatives, by definition, also oppose).

It could promulgate the unconstitutional, unamerican fantasy of a "unitary executive," the product of the frightenend, authoritarian minds of John Yoo at the Bush White House's Office of Legal Counsel, and of David Addington, legal counsel and later Chief of Staff to "Vice President" Dick Cheney, under which the President is the supreme branch of government, able to overturn Congress and the Supreme Court if, in wartime (Yoo did attach this condition) he so sees fit. It could set up a system of "black prisons," totally off the books, invisible, their inmates unknown and unnamed, closed even to the International Red Cross that, by international treaty, is charged with monitoring prisoners of war. Absolute power doesn't get much more absolute than this.

And what did we do? Did we occupy Lafayette Park in front of the White House, challenging the National Guard to use tear gas or rubber - or real - bullets? Did we come out en masse all over the country, demanding that our votes be respected? Did we hoot at the usurper whenever he appeared in public, keeping him a virtual prisoner behind rows of Secret Service men in a barricaded White House? Did the Democrats walk out Congress, and stay out until there was a full and honest recount of every vote cast in Florida?

We did not. The Democratic Party did not. There was a wild and raucous protest at Bush's first inaugural, and then we meekly went home. We pretended that Bush was a real president -- our newspapers referred to him as the president and not the "president" -- and we allowed our democratic values and traditions to be trampled on for four (and arguably eight; was the 2004 election legitimate, if the candidate could only have become the candidate by fraud?) long years. We paid a terrible price for that.

So here's to the uprising in the streets of Tehran, and to the Iranians who are demanding their rights as citizens. A pity we were not so brave.