Washington keeps condemning Iran's government
and making thinly veiled threats. But in Iran, many people are in the midst
of challenging the country's rulers, in the streets and at the ballot box.
The June 17 election for president could be a turning point or a
hollow spectacle no one knows which but the Bush administration
is eagerly trashing the whole thing. "The United States has not
waited for the first ballot to be cast before dismissing Iran's
presidential election as rigged," Agence France Presse reported over
But Iran's election is not rigged. There is a fierce electioneering
battle underway here, with some significant differences between
candidates. Meanwhile, hindered rather than helped by the bellicose
statements from Washington, courageous Iranian activists have begun a
new wave of actions against the status quo of theocracy.
On June 12, in front of the University of Tehran, nearly a hundred
courageous women sat down to demonstrate for human rights in a
society where women literally and figuratively are compelled to sit
at the back of the bus. "Stop Bias Against Women," said one
handheld sign. "Stop violation," said another. And: "Freedom."
Across the wide, vehicle-choked street, several hundred Iranian men and women
of all ages quickly gathered to augment the demonstration, one of the only such
public protests in recent years. "Political prisoners should be free,"
they chanted. A sign declared: "First Democracy, Then We Will Continue
Some of the Iranian people who most strongly oppose the government's theocracy
are boycotting the election. Others will vote, primarily for Mostafa Moin, the
most popular candidate at the reform edge of the spectrum. He's in sync with
the current president, Mohammad Khatami, "termed out" after eight
years in office. Khatami wasn't able to do much to undermine the power of highly
conservative clerics. Yet many young people, who have faced extremely puritanical
strictures, say that life in Iran has become a bit less stifling in recent years.
The widely respected icon and hack Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani,
positioned midway on the spectrum of candidates, has been making
noises that are not only somewhat conciliatory toward the United
States but also indicate that he favors a move away from current
restrictive pressures on media and personal freedom. He might just be
blowing smoke to appeal to the youth vote, but he clearly realizes
that many in the nation's large population of young people are
especially eager for such changes.
Several of the eight presidential candidates are hardline theocrats.
Whether their outlook will prevail after the ballots are cast June 17
(or in the runoff scheduled for two weeks later if no candidate gets
more than 50 percent in the first round) remains to be seen. So does
Iran's path after this historic crossroads that could lead to more
fundamentalist repression or progress for elements of democracy in
As I've learned more about what's at stake here for Iranian people, I've become
more angry at the deceptive rhetoric coming out of Washington. When President
Bush and his aides call Iran's presidential election meaningless, it is wishful
thinking. Some of the Bush neocons have the delusion that they can overthrow
the Iranian regime with plenty of missiles. But the real means for displacing
Iran's theocratic rulers with democratic processes are grass-roots efforts of
the sort taking root in Iran right now.
Evidently, the Bush administration would prefer that Iran's
presidential election be won by the most reactionary theocratic
forces in the country. Many of Bush's policymakers have a fantasy
that involves seeing Iran changed with military force. And a more
reasonable Iranian president could make Bush's agenda-setting for
warfare more difficult.
We should remember that the Bush team has much nicer things to say about the
far more repressive government in Saudi Arabia. And a few weeks ago, Laura Bush
with her husband's endorsement proclaimed Egypt's sham election
"reforms" to be an inspiration. Iran's election process is very flawed,
but it includes real aspects of democracy. Compared to the current Saudi or
Egyptian electoral setups, Iran is a beacon of hope for the region.
The Washington officials who warn of Iran's nuclear intentions fail to mention
that the U.S. government has been encouraging the spread of nuclear power plants
for five decades. From an environmental standpoint, Iran (like all nations)
is ill-advised to develop nuclear power. But there's no evidence it is anywhere
near developing nuclear weapons. And the Bush administration, with a solid track
record of winking at Israel's hundreds of atomic bombs and lying about WMD in
Iraq, is in no credible position to lecture about Iranian nuclear activities.
Bombast from the U.S. government helps to strengthen the hand of
hardline Iranian "theologues." For them, a missile strike against
Iran would be a godsend.
While in Washington there are fervent dreams of a military assault on
Iran, many people in Iran have boundless dreams of creating a society
that embraces human rights. Americans who want to help them should
challenge the dominant rhetoric of American media and politics that
is now setting an agenda for war on Iran.