Gains for Democracy in Iran
On the surface, no outlook could be farther from Washington's reigning mentality than the ayatollah-led chant of "Death to America" that I heard at a big prayer service in Tehran last Friday. But the hardliners in both countries need each other. Theirs is a perverse, mutual dependency that dares not speak its name.
In Iranian politics, extreme anti-American rhetoric is part of a theocratic package that seeks to affirm and boost repression in Iran. The more hostility that the Bush administration expresses toward Iran, in word and deed, the more the reactionary clerics like it. And "Death to America" chants -- as well as reports of human rights violations in Iran -- are music to the ears of the Bush neocons, who are working hard to foreclose any kind of dÃƒÂ©tente between Washington and Tehran.
For their own reasons, the rulers in both countries refuse to acknowledge the vital significance of support for presidential candidate Mostafa Moin, now the most prominent voice for democracy and human rights in Iranian politics. The Moin campaign drew 10,000 people to a rally at a Tehran stadium Tuesday night. A number of speakers emphasized that the campaign is aiming to lay groundwork for a movement -- and this election is just the beginning.
"You are supporters of democracy," a coordinator of the Moin campaign said at the rally. Mostly, he was speaking to young people. In fact, the average age in the stadium was probably somewhere in the mid-20s. In a country where more than two-thirds of the population is under 30 and the voting age is 15, the sands of repression could slip away beneath the aging feet of Koran-thumping autocrats.
Those autocrats may be rescued by American neocons. "As long as Iran fears America's intentions, and the United States vilifies the Islamic Republic, Iran's authoritarian leaders will have an excuse to suppress dissent and to label reformers as traitors," says Christopher de Bellaigue, a correspondent for The Economist who has lived in Iran for several years. Writing in the current issue of Foreign Policy, he predicts that "a new generation of Iranians will spur further reform."
Members of that generation energized the rally in Tehran on Tuesday -- a fact that helps to explain why the youth-driven Moin campaign has major implications far beyond the June 17 presidential election. "Some 70 percent of Iran's 70 million citizens are under the age of 30, and young Iranians are more reform-minded than older groups," De Bellaigue points out. Even Iran's official Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has acknowledged as much with survey data.
The Moin rally included a call for "a democratic interpretation of Islam." Referring to the Islamic Republic of Iran, prominent activist Ebrahim Yazdi said: "We want to take a step to institutionalize the 'republic' part of the regime."
While, for understandable reasons, many Iranians who've been disappointed at the slow pace of change are planning to boycott this election, Yazdi cautioned that not voting would play into the hands of "totalitarian" forces: "Your participation is voting for democracy and human rights." And: "After the election, the reform movement will begin."
A gathering of 10,000 Iranian people openly backing extensive democratization as part of an established electoral process would surprise anyone who accepts overall U.S. media depictions of Iran. And I was struck by the energetic determination and clarity of democratic purpose that infused the rally. But the democracy movement in Iran is not on a roll. Campaign rallies for Iran's incumbent reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, were much larger four years ago. The drop-off reflects deep disappointment that clerical establishment rulers have been able to largely thwart Khatami's efforts.
Moin, an educator and medical doctor, has taken the baton from a supportive Khatami. Nearing the end of a steeply uphill race for Iran's presidency, Moin has been speaking around the country. On the day of the rally, the Tehran Times reported Wednesday, the outspoken Moin "referred to the upcoming establishment of a Democracy and Human Rights Front in Iran to defend the rights of all Iran's religious and ethnic groups, the youth, academicians, women, and political opposition groups whose rights are often neglected."
And there's more. The newspaper added: "Due to Iran's patriarchal culture over the course of history, women's rights have always been violated by men, he observed, adding that it is quite obvious that women should enjoy equal rights with men."
In a country where political imprisonment and torture continue, such public statements are emblematic of a courageous movement struggling to emerge from the shadows of the Islamic Republic. Progress for that movement is a nightmare for theocrats and neocons who share deep commitments to violence and fear.