the massive display of human solidarity coursing through the streets of
Tehran in recent days made me wonder what we would do in this country
if an election were stolen. Then I remembered: We did have an election
stolen, and we pretty much did nothing. But that was long ago, in
Then again, in the past few weeks we’ve had our state
Legislature essentially purchased, and there was barely a tweet. A
total of 150 protesters and a clown hired by a newspaper stormed the
gates of the state Capitol during the Tom Golisano-inspired putsch two
weeks ago. Then we all settled down to watch the bickering wannabes
play volleyball with our future, while absolutely nothing worthy of a
legislature was even attempted, much less accomplished.
The Persians may have a little less practice at living
under a democracy, but they seem more willing to fight for it than we
are. Like “Iranian democracy,” the term “Iranian election” is a bit of
an exaggeration. The citizens of the Islamic Republic of Iran have more
political freedoms than some other nations in their neighborhood, but
that doesn’t say much.
If you include thinking for yourself among your hobbies,
and prefer not to have mullahs do it for you, living in Iran is like
doing hard time. There hasn’t been a serious electoral democracy in
Iran since before the reign of Shah Reza Pahlavi. The Shah was a U.S.
ally until he fled the country in 1979. Four million people marching
through Tehran demanded his departure, and he saw the wisdom in taking
their advice. Unfortunately, he passed on his repressive ways to his
successors, the religious establishment, led by Ayatollahs, which has
held power unchecked ever since.
The Shah himself was put in power in
1953 when Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill ordered a coup to
oust the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.
Mossadegh had the audacity to keep a campaign promise to nationalize
Britain’s oil holdings in the country. During the Cold War, that was
considered a no-no.
The story of how Iranian democracy died is well told in a 2003 book by Stephen Kinzer of The New York Times: All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Mideast Terror
(John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, N.J.). Anyone who scratches their head
and wonders why Iranians and their Arab neighbors can doubt our
sincerity when we present ourselves as bearers of democracy should
check out this volume.
That unhappy episode led to a generation
governed by an increasingly repressive secular Shah followed by a
generation governed by the Ayatollahs and the Revolutionary Guard.
Elections, as permitted by the Ayatollahs, are exercises to allow the
people to blow off some steam. It’s kind of like writing a blog, except
that you’re not in your pajamas, not anonymous, and you might get hit
with a truncheon wielded by a motorcycle cop.
This election won’t really decide who
holds power in Iran: It just helps the Ayatollahs decide who they
should allow to be their public face. If the people kick out the guy
they choose, then it serves to let them know it’s time to tighten the
screws a bit. Or loosen them. Then tighten them again. Smart autocrats
know that flexibility keeps the opposition off balance.
It’s almost as if we have the chance to
vote for a president, but the pope and the College of Cardinals get to
call all the shots. The ballot box is treated merely as guidance, not
the will of the people.
There are some things to like about the
Iranian system. For example, the Council of Guardians is kind of cool.
This is a group of imams and ayatollahs who keep an eye on the elected
officials. Like the Jedi Council, they are the elders who know what’s
best, and when the elected officials screw up, they set them straight.
Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.
The Council of Guardians is kind of a
blend between Thomas Jefferson and your grandma. Pedro Espada and
Malcolm Smith are making grandma look better every day.