Iran's Martin Luther Moment -- The Problem of Fixing Elections

07/24/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

To state the obvious: I'm not a religious scholar. Nevertheless, the political evolution of Martin Luther -- as I understand it -- is very relevant to what's going on in Iran at the moment. Luther was irked by the practice of selling indulgences -- a sort of pre-paid forgiveness for people planning to sin. It was a marvelous way for the Catholic Church to raise money but the blatant hypocrisy of the practice made Luther cringe. Luther demanded that the practice stop, and the Holy See responded with all the wrath and indignation it could muster. In doing so, it did not stop the rise of Protestantism; on the contrary, it radicalized the movement and mobilized more people than anyone would have though possible. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Politically, Mousavi seems a lot like Martin Luther. Mousavi didn't start out very radically. In fact, he was a rather strident president during the early days of the Iranian Islamic Republic. Moreover, he started out this race with many foreign policy issues that are identical to those of Ahmadinejad. And yet, like Luther, he has become much more reform minded so as to clearly distinguish himself from the incumbent administration.

So when Senior Ayatollah Khamenei rhetorically asked how 11 million ballots could be tampered with so quickly, Mousavi was ready with the observation that you cannot count 40 million paper votes in just a few hours. That's not the language of submission, and the country's Guardian Council of theocratic oligarchs has had to admit that in at least 50 cities there were more voters than votes. Of course, the powers that be aren't just going to step aside; they're willing to beat, shoot, arrest and intimidate so long as they can hold on to power. In so, doing they are surely radicalizing the very movement that they seek to repress.

Revolution, however, is not imminent. The "haves" are well armed, organized and not afraid to shoot (murder). But in the process of winning the day, the powers that be have: credentialed an opposition figure who will likely become more liberal; energized a population that can no longer deny the authoritarian nature of its regime; and, most strikingly, aligned religion with oppression. Over time, these are huge indictments against the very idea of an Iranian Islamic republic.

Had Ahmadinejad the skills to manage the economy none of this would be an issue. He didn't, which is why he did such a bad job stealing the election. Had Khamenei not made the mistake of backing the wrong horse, he could have gotten back to the business of protecting his turf. Instead, he's confronted from trying to save the whole system from collapsing. Perhaps that why the current government seems more like the Shah and Mousavi more like Luther.