Iranians Want Democracy, Not US Power


I don’t like religions. I don’t like theocracies and would like to see them all go. First on my list is Saudi Arabia but I’ve also long nurtured a particular abhorrence for the Iranian theocracy. 

The Iranian regime’s horrendous crimes against its own people can’t be ignored. Iranian dissident and former prisoner of conscience Akbar Ganji has written about what he calls "gender apartheid" in Iran. Amnesty International’s annual report on Iran is equally revealing. They describe the cruel punishments the government allows with sentences including "flogging and judicial amputation". There is no freedom of speech and torture is "common".

The Iranian Government is often criticised in Western media, but not always for the right reasons. In the West, we often hear about how dreadful President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is. He is (rightly) denounced as an anti-Semite, (rightly) denounced as a Holocaust denier, but (wrongly) denounced for threatening to wipe Israel off the map. It is tiresome to feel obliged to note that Ahmadinejad was mistranslated, that his foreign minister said he had been mistranslated, and that when asked, he has not called for military attack but a referendum.

Basically, Ahmadinejad is not a Zionist. Considering the popularity of Zionism in the region, this is hardly shocking. Yet the "wipe Israel off the map" story has become standard fare in much mainstream reporting on Ahmadinejad. For example, here you can read the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Middle East correspondent, Jason Koutsoukis lazily recycling the discredited myth that Ahmadinejad has "vowed repeatedly to ‘wipe Israel off the map’".

We should support the brave Iranian protestors and their struggle. But we should be clear about what the struggle is, and what supporting it entails. While there are plenty of Iranians who want freedom, or even just a fair count of their votes, Iranians do not want to become subjected by the US again. The Iranians have a proud history of struggle against foreign domination, whether it was the Russians, the French, the British, or the Americans. This should be borne in mind when we read criticisms of Iran’s human rights violations in much of our press. Iran’s regime is not considered unattractive or illegitimate because of its appalling human rights record. It is considered illegitimate because the Iranian people do not want to live under a client state of the US.

For an example of dubious support for Iran’s struggle, take the article by the SMH‘s Peter Hartcher on the Iranian elections. He wrote, of course, of Ahmadinejad’s mythical "threat" to Israel. He went on to note that Khamenei endorsed Ahmadinejad’s victory, so therefore "there is no prospect the result can be overturned". Plainly, Hartcher hasn’t noticed that the Iranians are not a particularly obedient people. This time 100 years ago, the Iranians fought to limit the powers of their king during the Constitutional Revolution, and today they live under the rule of a Supreme Leader because they were unwilling to accept the hideous reign of the Shah. The Shah was installed by the US and Britain in the 1953 coup, and then overthrown in 1979. Indeed, the end of the Shah arguably began with Iranian protests against Jimmy Carter and his fawning support for the tyrant of Teheran.

Hartcher’s claim that the latest election results couldn’t be overturned is the most instantly falsified statement in journalism that I’m aware of. After massive protests, Iran’s Guardian Council offered its support for a partial recount.

Hartcher concludes with a description of "grounds for hope". His hope isn’t for an end to the Islamic Republic. It’s not for an independent and free Iran. It’s for a pro-US client state. You can tell that by running a quick comparison. In his Iranian elections article, he says that a stolen election by Ahmadinejad would make the Government "fraudulent and illegitimate". Yet this same problem does not arise for a certain "Arab autocracy", the United Arab Emirates, which in an article less than three months ago Hartcher welcomed as a "new friend" for Australia. He granted that it is an "authoritarian state", but it is "a relatively liberal one". Yes, it is so liberal that among other liberal policies it has banned people without a university education from driving cars.

Hartcher’s double standard becomes even more glaring when you compare his reactions to elections in Iran and the UAE. In Iran Ahmadinejad has tried to steal the presidential election, which has limited value, because real power remains in the hands of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. On the other hand, in the UAE, only 7000 citizens were allowed to vote, after being selected by the Government to do so, and real power would still remain totally unaccountable to the electors. (For those interested, the Independent‘s Johann Hari recently wrote at length on Dubai’s terrible exploitation of foreign workers.)

How is this to be understood? Why does Hartcher consider the UAE to be authoritarian, but "relatively liberal"? Hartcher’s use of the term "liberal" should be understood as a technical one. It refers to the UAE being, in Hartcher’s view, "pro-US". In his UAE piece, Hartcher casually noted that "Israel and the US are weighing options for bombing" Iran. If this happened, Hartcher thought Iran might retaliate against the UAE, and so this meant Australia should protect the UAE from "any Iranian attack".

Where was Hartcher’s concern for Iranians then? Hartcher thought Israel and the US might well bomb Iran because of its alleged development of nuclear weapons. "Israel is terrified," cried Hartcher, in an article which casually noted that two major military powers were openly threatening to bomb Iran — and both of them are nuclear powers. In Hartcher’s world, we should be considerate of Israel’s fears of Iran developing nuclear weapons. But the issue of how Iran feels about being threatened, or how Israel’s neighbours feel about its nuclear weapons, doesn’t arise for him.

Iran’s dissidents have warned that threats against Iran have only consolidated clerical rule and provided a pretext for suppression of human rights advocates. Iranians do not need to be warned against false friends in the West, who support "freedom" in Iran, in the technical sense of it becoming once again a US colony, amenable to what are euphemistically called "western interests".

In this context, those who support freedom for Iran should not labour under any illusions about the elections and the leading "reformist" candidate Mousavi. The Iranian dissident, and former political prisoner, Akbar Ganji, said a year ago that "democracy and human rights will never emerge from the ballot box of the Islamic Republic." This was for the simple reason (already noted) that real power does not reside with Iran’s elected president. So even if we were to imagine Mousavi winning a recount and becoming Iran’s new president, this would not necessarily bring any promise of change to Iran. "Reformist" candidate Khatami won repeated landslide votes, yet he was able to effect very little change. Furthermore, as noted in the New York Times, Iran’s "theocratic rulers weed out all but a few ideologically acceptable candidates before each election".

Given all this, what can we expect from Mousavi? He has already been Iranian Prime Minister, from 1981–1989. To put it mildly, Iran was not transformed into a liberal democracy during this time, arguably the Islamic Republic’s darkest years. During his campaign, his wife has attracted western publicity as a figure for feminist reform. What has attracted less publicity is his call for a return to the "fundamental values" of Iran’s first Supreme Leader, the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

It is possible that Mousavi has changed his mind. Within the Islamic Republic, people are simply not allowed to advocate for the kind of institutional change that actually would mean freedom and democracy for Iranians. In this sense, I think we should distinguish between Mousavi and the Iranians. For example, 84 per cent of Iranians think a "free press" is important — their third-highest priority behind free elections and improving the economy. Given that these same Iranians were not given the option of voting for a more liberal government system, they voted for a reformist candidate. This does not mean that they are, or should be, willing to settle for Mousavi becoming president.

As Juan Cole noted, after public demonstrations were banned, Iranians took to rhythmically chanting "Allahu Akbar" at 9pm. "Presumably this chant was chosen because the mullah regime could hardly object to it." Plainly, people who live under oppressive rule find ways of struggling for social change however they can. These things have a momentum of their own, and the reported demonstrations of over a million people should give heart to Iran’s renewed struggle for freedom. Iran’s people have once again realised their strength, and another Iranian government has been challenged by its own people.

As the opening for dissent increases, my great hope is that Iranians do not let themselves become placated, but escalate their demands and hopefully achieve greater social change. There are promising signs of this, with chants against Khamenei, and of an "end to Taliban, whether in Kabul or Tehran".

The Iranians are showing people across the world what civil engagement looks like. For too long, the West has arrogantly assumed that it is the be-all and end-all of democracy. Democracy is not just about elections — it is about a people determining the course of their country. In Iran, it is all the more impressive because of the great dangers its people are facing. Robert Fisk has reported vividly on the horrendous repression that is being carried out against those fighting for a fair election. In the US, when credible allegations of vote rigging emerged, how many people thought it worthwhile to take to the streets? How many even noticed?

On the other hand, Iranians regard stealing an election as outrageous and their people are willing to fight and die for their rights. Their struggle should put an end to all the nonsense we hear about the need for the US to "liberate" those living under tyranny.

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