Exact opposite of paranoia
What can be learned from the rightwing backlash that led to
June 28, 2005
As the velvet revolution of 1989 unrolled in Prague, Czech
activists recalled the dark skies of the Spring of 1968. They
had jubilantly arrived at 89 by turning 68 on its head. Today,
Tehran feels like it has been on a runaway time machine going
in the other direction.
A decade’s struggle for democracy
has come to naught, or so it feels to the reformers who hoped
to win the Presidency in this election. The rightwing that was
chased from the elective corridors of the Islamic Republic eight
years ago has come back with a landslide victory. But there were
sufficient rumblings before this volcano blew its top.
It all started two years ago. After twice electing a reform
president and empowering a reform parliament the electorate finally
decided to give up on a do-nothing president and a parliament
paralyzed by the right wing sabotage. Regardless of the causes
of reformists’ failure, people’s despair was deep
and blind. So, they stayed away from the polls, handing to the
right wing first the City Councils (and hence the office of Tehran’s
Mayor taken over by Mr. Ahmadinejad) and then the Seventh Parliament.
But the reform king preferred to continue with the assumption
that it had clothes.
Despite their inept leadership and dismal performance, reformists
had turned so complacent as to choose a weak candidate for the
election to avoid disqualification in the vetting
process. The dread of disqualification by the
right wing Council of Guardians surpassed fear of losing
the trust of the people. Finally, the voters had to spell it
out in bold, banner-size letters. They turned away from reform
and conservative politics in favor of a populist, rightwing revolutionary.
In the first round the traditional right wing vote (split
among three candidates) ballooned to twice its previous size.
second round the rightwing contender took another huge share
of the electorate from its rival. Assuming that all of the votes
cast for the other rightwing candidates in the first round went
to Ahmadinejad in the runoff; he still had to attract an additional
five million reform and progressive votes to end up with a seven
million winning margin in the final tally.
Pubic distaste for
a lethargic reform, the lower class economic concerns and their
disgust for corrupt politicians, a nationalist surge against
perceived unfair international pressures on nuclear technology
along with Ahmadinejad’s genius as a communicator and his
organizational savvy among the factors that could partially explain
the Tehran surprise of 2005.
Reformers who had held their noses and voted for an anemic
reform candidate (Moin) had to wear gas masks to cast votes
for a conservative silverback with a reputation for corruption
and human rights abuses (Rafsanjani.) They are dismayed to lose
after this compromise to a rightwing upstart.
What is left to
do for the reformers (not counting moping around and worrying
about a bleak future) other than pondering the lessons of the
day. The first gathering of reformers to contemplate these
lessons convenes next Thursday at the headquarters of the Participation
Front, the main reform organization. There shall be no dearth
of lessons to discuss at such a gathering. There are so many
indeed, that the reformers could afford to spare a few to foreign
observers and Diaspora Iranians.
This must be a good time to wonder why the Western news media
is so replete with false or superficial reports on Iran. After
twenty seven elections in a quarter of a century some foreign
observers are still innocent of the workings of elections in
Iran while the more liberal correspondents stop at discussing
women’s mandatory hijab and the prevalence of alcohol in
In the United States ignorance is compounded
by ideological bias. Cynicism and conspiracy theories flourish
in a culture of ignorance. A spate of neo conservative editorials
appeared in the week preceding the Iranian elections in a range
of respectable American newspapers from New York Times to Washington
Times, alleging state sponsored chicanery and low turnout ranging
from 5% to 30%. The charges of fraud were wildly exaggerated
and the participation soured to 63% and 59% in the two rounds
Michael Ledeen’s column in National Review Online entitled “Manny,
Moe & Rafsanjani” exemplifies the slapstick logic and
conspiratorial rigmarole that has come to pass as commentary
on Iranian elections. Ladeen claims the voting age in Iran is
14 years (it is 15) and quotes the participation in Kuzestan
province in the first round as having been between 3% to 5% (actually,
it was 55.33%.)
It would be of interest to independent foreign
press in Iran that Ledeen claims that media reportage of massive
participation in the elections was nothing but old footage. Ledeen’s
article crawls with incompatible conspiracy theories. On the
one hand 17 million ballots are alleged to have been fraudulently
filled out “by the representatives of one candidate or
On the other, two million Pakistani Shiites are
said to have been “bused in” across the Eastern border
to vote for the rightwing candidates. One wonders why a regime
that can so deftly manage to distribute 17 million fake ballots
among seven contenders in thousands of voting stations would
take on the expense and logistical nightmare of massive population
One might ask of what significance is such misinformation when
it is propagated in faraway, foreign lands. The significance
of this kind thinking is that it informed the ill-timed speech
of President Bush on Iranian elections that was used to the hilt
by the state-run Iranian TV to show America’s blind enmity
against Iran and to boost the vote for right-wing candidates.
This may very well have been responsible for the thin margin
put the right wing candidate Ahmadinejad over moderate
reformer Karrubi in the first round.
What is the lesson for
foreign observers who prefer to see Iran through ideological
Sometimes demonizing Iran could get them less than zero.
The expatriate opposition can also draw a lesson or two from
this election. I think they, like the reform movement in Iran,
suffer from the syndrome that Woody Allen once diagnosed in the
character playing his brother in law: “your problem is
the exact opposite of paranoia. You are under the delusion that
everybody loves you.”
Many in the exile community overestimate
their own influence in Iran. Most of the exile organizations
urged a boycott of the elections in order to deny legitimacy
to the regime. They succeeded to convince a staggering 7% of
the population which denied legitimacy only to the idea of
Many among the expatriates are incapable of distinguishing
between their daydreams and reality. The vista from Tehrangeles
has always included the spectacle of an impending revolution
against the Islamic fanatics in Iran. Any minute now, watch
out, there it comes, the big one! Some exile opposition organizations
actually urged people to vote for the rightwing candidate,
in order to push things to their extreme and expedite the
coming violent overthrow of the regime.
It is instructive to note
that while the opposition contemplated this irresponsible plan,
Doulatabadi, the Iranian novelist who had been targeted
for assassination under President Rafsanjani, urged people to vote
for the lesser
of the two evils, that happened to be none other than Rafsanjani.
What is the lesson for the ex-patriot opposition? Although
your main rival, the internal reform movement, has suffered
blow, hold off your celebratoins. The enemy of their
not always your friend.
Ahmad Sadri is Professor and Chairman of the Department of
Sociology and Anthropology at Lake Forest College, IL, USA. See Features.
This article first appeared in Shargh newspaper in Iran.