COMMENTARY Iran, elections and protest: the roots of reform

The fact that Iran is not a democracy and that all candidates in the recent presidential election were “cleared” to run by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei should not blind us to the significance of the election outcome and the response of the people to it.

As an exercise in mass engagement the 10th presidential election in Iran puts many in the West to shame. It has been clear from the nightly rallies in the major cities across the country that the Iranian population are desperate to make their voices for change heard.

Over the four years of the Ahmadinejad government many have had time to reflect. The reformist period of the Khatami presidency, 1997-2005, is remembered as something of a liberal oasis in the 30-year existence of the Islamic Republic. Not that Khatami was by any means perfect. Iran’s prisons still housed political prisoners, trades unions were unable to organize freely and women’s rights remained restricted. However, the Khatami years did see a relaxation of the stricter social mores in Iran, a more critical press, less belligerence in foreign policy and the prospect, however slight, that reformist gains once consolidated would be hard to take back.

Indeed, it is the latter point in particular which exercised the hardline clerics and security forces prior to the 2005 elections. Further steps in the direction of reform might have meant that the genie would truly escape the bottle and that the Islamic Republic’s sham democracy would have been exposed as a hollow charade. In a theocratic dictatorship the president cannot exist or act independently of the Supreme Leader.

The rigging of the 2005 election to bring Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to office was a well timed maneuver. The reform process had run out of steam. After two terms Khatami was both tired and frustrated. There was no energy left for a final push on the real power in the Islamic Republic and no real indication that mass support would have been strong enough to effect it.

The apathy of many voters combined with a populist, “man of the people” approach in the conservative rural heartlands gave the security forces enough leverage to ensure that Ahmadinejad was safely “elected” and that any steps towards liberalization were halted.

True to expectation, the president has delivered on behalf of the reactionary forces in Iran. The imprisonment of women’s activists, students and trades unionists has been stepped up. Iran flouts international conventions on human rights. Oil revenues have been wasted as a resource-rich country is plunged into periods of darkness through electricity rationing, mass unemployment and rampant inflation. Economics, proclaims the president, is for donkeys.

The international face-off with the U.S./Israeli alliance has not, it is true, been entirely of Ahmadinejad’s making. The situation has been exacerbated, however, by his failure to negotiate and achieve a balance which does not give the U.S. or Israel the excuse for a first strike.

The fear of war, social conservatism and economic uncertainty has combined to persuade many Iranians that change is necessary. The limitations of Iran’s electoral system do not permit that change to be significant and Mir Mousavi is by no stretch a social or economic radical. The desire for change in Iran is such, however, that even such an unlikely candidate as Mousavi, conservative by nature, can become the focus for major expressions of dissent and discontent with the status quo.

There can be little doubt that the proclaimed result of the 2009 election, Ahmadinejad 63 percent, Mousavi 34 percent, has been rigged. Apart from the very unlikely eventuality of the other two candidates polling a mere 3 percent between them, all indications from within Iran and external observers suggested a Mousavi victory or, at the very least, a close outcome. That voters should turn out 2:1 in favor of Ahmadinejad frankly beggars belief.

The extent of the demonstrations on the streets of Tehran and in other major cities suggests that this is a view shared by many in the country. Four more years as an international pariah, an economic under achiever and as a byword for the most restrictive social conservatism is not what most Iranians want. The ruling clerics have been out of touch with the aspirations of many in Iran for many years. The younger generation in particular desires less social restrictions. Workers demand the right to organize. Women demand respect and equality. The 2009 elections may have finally let the genie out of the bottle and however hard they wish, Iran’s rulers may not be able to force it back in.

Jane Green is the national campaign officer of CODIR, Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights, .