On December 15, more than 60% of Iranians cast ballots in municipals elections. With the mounting pressure of reformist coalitions, a remarkable number of their candidates survived the draconian vetting processes of the clerical establishment and turned this election into a popular vote of confidence in Ahmadinejad’s administration. Whether they succeed in wining the majority seats in city and town councils in Tehran and other parts of the country is not known yet. But the mere act of the electorates’ massive participation once more exhibited the resilience of democratic institutions under the Islamic Republic in spite of abundant social, legal, and political impediments. Had this election occurred in an allied country of the United States, it would have been celebrated as the highest achievement of American foreign policy. But the Bush administration and the mainstream media disregard elections held under an alleged “totalitarian” state as a nonevent.
There is an expression in Persian that if a wall’s first brick is laid unevenly, it will be skewed no matter how high it is erected. President Bush won his first term by corrupting the votes in Florida and later by exploiting the judicial system in the United States. This set a devastating precedent for an administration which considers itself to be above the law and believes it can wield its power indiscriminately around the world. It is indeed one of most appalling ironies that a President who assumed office fraudulently calls himself and his entourage of neoconservative hawks the messengers of democracy in the world. He might be right in believing that his mission of spreading democracy in the world defines his presidency. But the problem is that for this administration, like many others before it, democracy means turning a nation into an American ally. According to Bush, the world is divided into three camps: undemocratic, countries impervious to American interests; democratic, countries yielding to American interests; and those in between. There is nothing novel about this strategic narcissism. American foreign policy during the Cold War was informed by the tunnel vision of “American interests” which compelled one administration after another to raise the heat of the Cold War through successive proxy wars and coup d’étatsthink Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954, Indonesia 1967, Vietnam 1965-73, Chile 1973, Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua 1980s, and the list goes on.
The United States learned the wrong lessons in the Cold War. A nation’s right to self-determination, even at the expense of American interests, must be respected. The US is not the Supreme Leader of the world with power to override the outcome of elections in other countries. When the Palestinians cast their ballots in favor of Hamas, or the Venezuelans elect Chavez as their president, it is morally wrong and politically bankrupt to punish them with economic sanctions or conspire to overthrow their legitimate government because the White House believes that the people have elected the “wrong party.” The Cold War is over, but the worldview that gave rise to it thrives.
President Bush’s advisors would greatly benefit from reading Iranians’ numerous letters to the BBC’s Persian service and interviews with Iranian daily newspapers about why they vote or alternatively why they boycott the elections. The majority who vote do so consciously to underline their preference for a homegrown democracy with all its faults over an imported American brand. One constituent wrote, “I voted to prove that our true desire is to transform this system, and to show that we don’t need American democracy.” Another letter from Shahin Shar noted, “there is no room to breath freely, Iran’s international credibility and respect is diminishing, and we hope that we are not on a path to war, I voted to change this direction.” “I want to know,” another interviewee from Tehran asked rhetorically, “in which other country in the world do they have carnivals on the streets and the artists and celebrities go to neighborhoods to encourage people to participate?” Another woman from Golestan described her vote as a “declaration against right-wing populism and US warmongering.” Another voter from Mashad aptly observed, “Iranians always believe that the neighbor’s grass is greener  I am 62 years old and I vote proudly in all elections. I exercise this right and feel sorry for those who fall short of their responsibilities and wait for some invisible hand to come and rescue them. I know that they are inexperienced and do not have any idea about other parts of the world. I ask them to look at the Arab countries, all of those with good relations with the US and tell me that they are more democratic than we are.” A young voter from Shiraz called the election a “velvet revolution” that will strengthen “local decision-making and non-governmental organizations.”
Since President Bush has announced that he has been on a listening tour, maybe he ought to extend the length of this most unusual campaign and listen to the words and actions of the people he wants to rescue in Iran.
Behrooz Ghamari is a professor of history and sociology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Islam and Dissent in Postrevolutionary Iran. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org