10 June, 2009

What is happening in Iran?

Iranian elections will be held in less than two days, on June 12th, and it is likely that upon their results hang several key US foreign policy objectives, including cooperation regarding our withdrawal from Iraq, help in Afghanistan, and nuclear non-proliferation. The "Green Revolution" of former prime minister and reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi appears to be gaining steam. His supporters have been swamping the capital, Tehran, with mass demonstrations and public political altercations that are pushing the envelope of what have been the previously accepted levels of dissent in Iran.

Folks like Andy Sullivan have been documenting the competition with optimistic takes such as "Something is happening in Iran." And there is reason for optimism - the vigor and openness of this election seems to be real, and a real potential opening for rapproachement in the useless standoff between Iran and the United States. But, we must remember, it is very difficult for outsiders to understand local political dynamics in unfamiliar countries, but very easy for us to read our own desires and values onto their circumstances. So, there are several important questions. One, is Mousavi's victory as likely as western commentators making it out to be? And, second, will a Mousavi victory be as good as western commentators make it out to be?

The answer to the first question is, no one has any good idea. Polling is notoriously bad, and Ahmadinejad has an unclear amount of informal control over the electoral process. Newsweek's Maziar Bahari, however, predicts a wide-margined win for Mousavi on Friday, due largely to his popularity among the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the muscle of the Islamic Revolution. This brings us to the second question - is Mousavi really a reformist if he is relying on the support of the Revolutionary Guard (as well as the distaste much of the clerical hierarchy has for Ahmadinejad) to deliver or support his election victory? As MEMRI argues (h/t Sullivan), none of the candidates, Mousavi included, are actually "reformists" in the sense of the word that existed before 2005 - they are all well-ensconced within the "conservative" camp, and suggests that the differences between them deal more with their level of messianism than with their actual desire to reform the Iranian theocracy.

I can't speak to how likely it is that Mousavi will win on Friday, but I will say I hope he does. While he may not actually be able to change Iran's repressive apparatus, he seems likely to at least not make it worse. What's more, the very public presence of his wife on the campaign trail seems to be signalling a willingness to challenge the gender restrictions of revolutionary Iran. But while I have only goodwill towards ordinary Iranian people, I hope he wins primarily for selfish reasons. A moderate win will shore up Obama's support at home (which is important for domestic as well as foreign policy) simply by dint of the defeat of a key Bush antagonist. (Like the recent Lebanese elections, it will surely be read as a success of Obama's outreach.) It would make progress on Israel-Palestine more likely and would make an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program more likely. It could prove crucial to an effective withdrawal from Iraq.

I dare to hope. We will see.

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