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Making Sense of the 2009 Iranian Elections

In this guest web log, Dr. Khali Dokhanchi (UWS) writes: The presidential election of 2009 is perhaps the most devastating development to the Iranian regime since the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Most people assumed that the next crisis in Iran would be "external"--namely a military attack on its nuclear installations either by the US or Israel. No one expected that the regime in Iran would nurture the seeds of its own destruction. Irrespective of truth about how many people voted and who they voted for, people who felt that the elections were "rigged" took to the streets to demonstrate their unwillingness to continue with the status quo. What are we supposed to learn from these events? What do they mean?

First, the Iranian electorate is alive and attentive. Eight years of punditry on how we need to export democracy to the Middle East left us with the impression that the people of Middle East were passive sheep that take whatever is meted out to them by their repressive regimes, and they needed the "Westerners" to guide them to the democratic promised land. The pictures of old and young, man and woman, dying, being beaten or detained for their rights, once and for all, end the debate about the passivity of the electorate. Within the limited confines of what is granted to them in terms of rights, they will claim and use their rights.

Second, the demands of the protesters are very specific. The protesters are concerned about having their votes counted and, given questions regarding the legitimacy of the "results," call for a re-election. The fact that they are seeking their rights as specified by the Iranian Government made their campaign far more effective and robust. They point to violations of election laws and merely seek to remedy those violations.

Third, the dispute is about elections and not democracy. Unfortunately for Iranian protesters, that battle for democracy was lost even before the election. There are rather restrictive election rules that often disqualify candidates from running for office, and in a way, the elections are predetermined in Iran. What makes the 2009 election interesting is that despite "pruning" the list of nominees who could run for office, the handling of the voting and subsequent release of "official" results raised a number of questions about the legitimacy of the count. The battle is not between "Islamic hardliners" and "democrats" but hardcore "Islamists" and lite "Islamists". The so-called reformers are very much products of the Islamic Revolution. Iran did have a reformist regime from 1997 to 2005 and there is no indication that if the reformist returns to power, their rule would be any different than that of ex-president Khatami. Namely, they will pass legislation to bring Iran closer to the international community, only to have the rules overturned by one of the semi-elected institutions. The only area of improvement is in the social area, namely the government will back off its "morality police" rule and allow the people to do what they want in the country and give them a bit of "breathing" room. The idea that reformers coming to power will solve some of the problems that Western countries have with Iran is merely wishful thinking.

Fourth, the protesters have already achieved a couple of enormously important objectives. The Iranian regime now knows that the voters are fully aware of their rights and will protect them. Future elections in Iran will be closely monitored, and they will have less room to control these elections. More importantly, however, the crisis highlighted the role of the "Supreme Leader." Oddly, most of the rhetoric of the protesters is not directed at Ahmadinejad but Khamenei. Frequent references to the Khamenei as the "dictator" are a clear personal and institutional challenge to him and to his office. The fact that demonstrations occurred even after he forbid it means a lot in terms of his power and legitimacy in the future. The fractured ruling elite is the necessary first step for change in Iran.

Fifth, the current situation had provided the seeds for future changes in Iran. The strategic choices of the protesters as well as their nonviolent means provide them with a wonderful tool for political change in the future. Failure of the political regime in Iran to satisfy the needs of the protesters may lead these people to articulate more demands and more serious changes to the current system in Iran. Only then, may true democracy emerge in Iran.