Iran Crossroads

Posted June 16, 2009, at 6:18 p.m.

The events unfolding in Iran over the last few days may be the period history will mark as the awakening of that nation’s moderate, democratic-minded citizens. Or it may be remembered as a road not taken, when Iran’s people and leaders opted for the perceived safety of theocratic and isolationist rule.

The reaction to the election that pit incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi has been more momentous than the election. The fact that the ballots, which are counted manually, were declared to favor Mr. Ahmadinejad by a wide margin so soon after the polling ended may suggest fraud. The incumbent moved quickly on the public stage to reinforce this result, and the nation’s religious leaders — who hold more power than the elected officials — endorsed that outcome as well.

Then thousands took to the streets, first to rally and celebrate what they believed was Mr. Mousavi’s victory, then to protest Mr. Ahmadinejad’s apparent seizing of office. As has happened in democratic movements before, when people take to the streets and see thousands just like themselves de-manding the same sorts of reforms, a critical mass builds and feeds off itself. The Solidarity movement in Poland, which helped topple the Soviet bloc, began this way. But so did the so-called Prague Spring of 1968 and the occupation of Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. Those demonstrations ended tragically.

In a positive step, the religious leaders are calling for a partial recount.

In a press conference, Mr. Ahmadinejad dismissed the demonstrations, estimated to have drawn 100,000 or more to the streets, as actually amounting to only 2,000 to 3,000, more akin to soccer fans than a political movement, he said. He also blamed the Western media for creating the myth of spontaneous demonstration.

“Where did you hear that the people do not accept the vote count?” he asked. “Have you been in touch with 40 million people? You see the few people you like to see.”

Divining the true will of the people is difficult; in this, Mr. Ahmadinejad is correct. But ironically, without an independent media (Western media is banned from covering demonstrations), no one really knows what the people are thinking. Mr. Mousavi pledged to allow private ownership of media, had he been elected, and promised to meet and negotiate with President Obama.

For Americans who may have relied on the Bush administration’s facile labeling of Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil,” the current events are probably puzzling. Is the rise of a democratic, reform-minded populace the result of the U.S. toppling Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq? Or did the Bush doctrine hide this wrinkle in Iran, which might have been encouraged and nurtured with constructive, diplomatic engagement over the last decade?

Unless Mr. Ahmadinejad turns over power to his opponent — not likely — the Obama administration faces an increasingly volatile and complex Iran. In seeing the fault lines lies diplomatic opportunity.

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