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The Real Race for Iran: Human Rights Vs. Tehran's Defenders

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Since Iran was thrust into internal turmoil by last year's election, the world has been moved by events that unfolded during the protests of the Green Movement. As we watched the violence of the agents of the Iranian government against peaceful demonstrators, most of us thought that it would be impossible to defend the regime's position amidst the bloodshed we witnessed on our TV screens.

Not so. The Iranian Government, despite all the detentions, abuses, and unlawful killings since June 2009, still has support overseas in the guise of purportedly unbiased political analysts, none more vocal than that of the authors of Race for Iran, one a former CIA and National Security Council official, the other a former diplomat in the State Department.

Their solution to the human rights abuse issue? Pretend it is not relevant. Arrests, torture, rape, and the murder of protesters are set aside.

The testament to how far they can go in defending an indefensible position? Consider the lengthy response of RFI's authors to "Misreading Tehran", a series of seven articles published on the Foreign Policy website.

In this article, the duo close their eyes to all other internal matter to declare that the 2009 Presidential election is legitimate, simply because the opposition has allegedly not provided any evidence to back up claims of fraud. Thus, the vote for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad must be free and fair.

If we were to accept this argument, then every election under Suharto in Indonesia was free and fair. Every election held in Islam Karimov's Uzbekistan is free, as is every vote held in Cuba under Fidel Castro. Robert Mugabe is the rightful ruler of Zimbabwe. If stolen or "created" ballots cannot be exhibited, the result is not only legal but legitimate.

Under this "legitimate" Iranian Government, freedom of speech is severely curtailed. Newspapers are regularly banned, journalists regularly imprisoned. Candidates for elections are screened by the establishment, and only those passing the Guardian Council's ideological tests are allowed to run. There are hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of political prisoners suffering in Iran's jails. Under such harsh conditions, it is a distortion -- a dishonorable distortion -- to say that elections in Iran can be free, fair and honest.

If that were not enough, high-ranking clerics -- from within Iran's own establishment -- came forward and decried the elections as fraudulent. Grand Ayatollah Bayat-Zanjani was quoted, "Every healthy mind casts doubt on the way the election was held." Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri called the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "illegitimate" and "tyrannical." Perhaps the most revered cleric after Khamenei, Grand Ayatollah Lotfullah Safi Golpayegani called the results "a grand lie." Their voices were silenced by the media blackout, with Western journalists unaware of their clout within Iran's government and society.

But to RFI's authors, it is beyond consideration that Iran's leadership is a brutal regime hell-bent on keeping itself in power. They dismiss that people from within Iran's establishment question the legitimacy of the election. To them, an inquiry can only be considered if the Green Movement takes up arms, fights the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, confiscates all the ballot boxes from the election through force of arms and then counts them somewhere in Europe in front of international media. Only then, will 'healthy" minds accept fraud.

Yet there is a somewhat tortured twist in RFI's line, illustrated in the article in Foreign Policy. Having declared -- following the sudden execution of five Iranians on 9 May -- that the consideration of human rights was beyond their agenda, the authors resurrect two months-old "studies" of the 2009 election to establish that the political and civil rights of Iranians were respected and defended.

Doing so, they hold up a cracked mirror with RFI's reflection of post-election Iran: one of the purported reports on the election is by little-known "analysts" who have also suggested that Neda Agha Soltan, killed during the protests of 20 June 2009, was slain by agents of "the West":

It is inconceivable that an Islamic regime which understands the power of martyrdom in its own culture would sanction the cold-blooded murder of an innocent and ordinary young woman on the streets of Tehran.

However it is every bit conceivable that those who thought the opposition movement needed a symbol and icon of resistance -- recipients and supporters no doubt of a $400m CIA-backed destabilization program for Iran -- would have arranged this horrible murder and try and pin it on the Iranian authorities.)

If RFI's authors claim that rights have no place in their forum, why resurrect a long-surpassed and rather creaky case for a proper vote on 12 June 2009?

In part, it is a necessary tactic to support the authors' main objective, which is to promote US-Iran discussions on important regional and global issues. Putting forth that case requires the notion that President Ahmadinejad can be engaged because he has a legitimate position.

More importantly, though, the tactic is a deflection. The Green Movement and civil rights organizations inside Iran long ago moved beyond contesting the elections to the campaign for a political, social, economic, and religious system that upholds rather than abuses its citizens' rights. Mir Hossein Mousavi has released several statements in recent months emphasizing that the Green Movement needs to firm up its ties with the Iranian populace to spread the message of change and to ensure that the Islamic Republic fulfills the rights set out in its Constitution.

Iran's Government is unable to address these issues, but they are also unable to prevent their consideration. It has persisted in arresting people who protest brutality and human rights abuses, but the challenge continues. It has tried to penetrate the ranks of the Green Movement, but it cannot prevent activists from interacting with disgruntled Iranians who have been affected. It has pursued the alternative of proclaiming Iran's exalted international position, but that distraction cannot be sustained when headlines are re-claimed by the heckling of Ayatollah Khomeini's grandson and the attacks on Iran's most esteemed clerics.

So the solution is sought by Tehran's defenders: while announcing that rights do not matter, revive the notion of the "legitimate" rule -- with the implication that legitimacy confers the authority to pursue any and all acts in the name of the Iranian state -- established by the 2009 election.

The problem for this defense is that rights will not go away. Those who bravely persist in the face of repression are emphasizing human rights and democracy more than ever. Ten days ago, Iranians who marched in Tehran were not heard chanting, "Where is My Vote?"; amidst the calls of God is Great, they were demanding that their rights -- as Iranians and as human beings -- be affirmed by their Government and by their Supreme Leader.

An objective analysis worthy of the label would question why the Iranian government fills the countries streets with security forces if it is stable and loved by its people. It would investigate why foreign media is effectively banned and why dozens of Iran's journalists are in jail, barred from working, or under threat of punishment if they dare to write. It would at least raise a quizzical eyebrow at the scores who are on death row and the hundreds more behind bars or on heavy bail simply because they voiced their opposition to the regime.

But that analysis would be tantamount to a questioning of legitimacy. And there the authors of RFI meet their self-imposed limit. They have shackled themselves even more effectively than the Government which they defend has shackled its people.

If there is a Race for Iran, those who defend the regime -- in the name of the irrelevancy of human rights -- can only stand still, stamping their feet loudly that there is no alternative. And in that race, it is the alternative which -- while hobbled by intimidation, restricted by suppression, hindered by punishment -- continues to move forward towards its goals.

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