Secor reviews the disillusionment when President Khatami couldn't live up to the hope he engendered in 1997. This led to calls for a boycott of the 2005 elections which Ahmadinejad "won." Did his win make a difference? Yes, it did, writes Secor. A major difference.
A major one, as it turned out. Under Ahmadinejad, a crackdown on dissent forced scores of journalists, intellectuals, and activists to flee the country. Ahmadinejad centralized government, empowered the Basij militia and the Revolutionary Guards, flouted expert economic advice, and packed the ministries with ideological cronies. With few reformists permitted to run in the interim elections of 2006 and 2008, liberals and moderates had little recourse inside the political system...
---Laura Secor, The New Yorker
Protest Vote, by Laura Secor
June 29, 2009 (published a week earlier)
More than a hundred Iranian reformists have been arrested in the turmoil following Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hastily declared victory in the June 12th Presidential election. Among them is Saeed Hajjarian, who had been a political consultant to former President Mohammad Khatami. In 2000, Hajjarian was shot in the face by an assassin who was widely believed to have been in the employ of the intelligence ministry. Hajjarian had once been a high official in the intelligence apparatus, and he was suspected of being the source of stories in a reformist newspaper tying the ministry to the grisly murders of dissidents. He survived the shooting, but was left partially paralyzed and is dependent on the constant care of doctors and family. He speaks with difficulty, and his office in the reformist-party headquarters contains a hospital bed. His doctor says that keeping him in detention without proper medical care could endanger his life.
It is not a good sign when a government feels the need to imprison even the dissidents it has already shot. But the skies are full of ominous signs for Iran’s protest movement. In a sermon at Friday prayers last week, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, defied any expectation that he might reverse course and call a new election under neutral monitors; instead, he demanded an end to the street protests and threatened their leaders with reprisals. The speech was surprising only in the light of the giddy, contagious hope that had risen from the sight of a long-suppressed citizenry’s refusal to be cowed. As one Iranian-American observer put it, using an indelicate Iranian expression, the leader has a saw in his posterior: he can’t go forward and he can’t go back. Unfortunately, even to hold still looks excruciating, most of all for the protesters at the wrong end of the batons, knives, and firearms of the Revolutionary Guards’ special forces.
Mir-Hossein Moussavi, the Presidential contender whose legions of supporters have taken to the streets of Iranian cities, has a long and complex history with Khamenei. When Moussavi was Prime Minister, in the nineteen-eighties, he belonged to a faction known as the Islamic Left. It shared power with a rival faction, the Islamic Right, led by Khamenei, who was then the President. When Moussavi and Khamenei clashed, as they often did, the charismatic leader of the Islamic Revolution and the supreme leader of the country, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, intervened—most frequently on Moussavi’s side.
So, in 1989, when Khomeini died and Khamenei replaced him as supreme leader, the Islamic Left was exiled to political purgatory. Moussavi did not lift his head in Iranian politics for twenty years. But during those years the rest of his Islamic Left faction, including Saeed Hajjarian, made one of the most dramatic turnabouts in Iran’s political history. It abandoned its hard-line commitments in favor of an agenda of liberalization, freedom of expression, the relaxation of Islamic social codes, and friendlier dealings with the world. On the strength of this platform, in 1997, Khatami, who had been Moussavi’s minister of culture, won the Presidency in a landslide. Parliament soon fell to the reformists, too. Although these elected officials were subordinate to Khamenei, Hajjarian believed that they could extend their reach by triangulating between the mass movement they represented and the autocratic state with which they shared power. He coined the phrase that would define the reformists’ strategy: “Pressure from below, negotiation at the top.”
That strategy failed. The pressure from below was for far-reaching democratic reform, which Khatami could not deliver within the confines of the constitution. Moreover, the authorities at the top were not interested in negotiating. A hundred independent newspapers and magazines opened, only to be forced to close; the Guardian Council vetoed much of the legislation passed by the parliament; and Khatami could not keep his inner circle out of prison, let alone the young people whose votes had won him the Presidency. By the time he left office, in 2005, the reformists had neither a credible leader nor a constituency. Activists and public figures called for a boycott of that year’s election. What good was voting if a President with a broad popular mandate could still be controlled and stymied by unelected powers? What difference did it even make who was President?
A major one, as it turned out. Under Ahmadinejad, a crackdown on dissent forced scores of journalists, intellectuals, and activists to flee the country. Ahmadinejad centralized government, empowered the Basij militia and the Revolutionary Guards, flouted expert economic advice, and packed the ministries with ideological cronies. With few reformists permitted to run in the interim elections of 2006 and 2008, liberals and moderates had little recourse inside the political system. Iran seemed headed for a confrontation between irreconcilables: the forces for secular democracy and those for autocratic theocracy.
“Reform is dead, long live reform”—that is another of Saeed Hajjarian’s favorite sayings. This spring, the reform movement looked deader than ever. Moussavi, its leading Presidential candidate, was a cipher. But some reformists were encouraged by his long rivalry with Khamenei, which they felt would make him a powerful and fearless advocate for his constituency, a role Khatami never undertook. Although Khatami’s party endorsed Moussavi, he described himself as independent, and assured voters that he believed in the principles of the Islamic Revolution. And yet, in a breathtaking, even inexplicable development, the Moussavi campaign produced a “green wave.” Perhaps all that voter apathy since 2005 masked a deeper, embarrassed hope. Or was it despair that had liberated Iranians to be pragmatic—to resign themselves to the longevity of the system and to set modest, achievable goals, like the repudiation of Ahmadinejad?
Whatever its origins, the Moussavi wave has coalesced with extraordinary speed into a disciplined, tactically sophisticated, and strikingly moderate movement. The protesters are not directly challenging Khamenei, or the constitution that allows him nearly unlimited power, despite the widely shared impression that his hand is behind the apparent manipulation of the election results and the crackdown that has followed. Instead, they are demanding that their votes be counted and, numbers permitting, that they be allowed to elect the candidate of their choice, from among the few whom Khamenei’s Guardian Council had preapproved to run for office. In effect, they insist that the path of legal, internal reform be kept open. Whether this unity and singularity of purpose will survive depends partly on Moussavi’s leadership, and partly on how much pressure Khamenei brings to bear.
Count our votes: the modesty of this demand is particularly moving, set against the majesty of the demonstrations. Under the Islamic Republic, public spaces are surveilled for adherence to the dress code and Islamic morality, for suspicious gatherings and raucous laughter, for trespasses that take even their perpetrators by surprise. For those with secrets to hide, the streets are full of eavesdroppers. But now, for once, life as it pulses in the sanctuary of Iranian homes has burst onto the streets. The scale of the crowds is remarkable, as is their confidence, which seems to grow with each day that the protests are not met with overwhelming violence.
But of the two sides in this confrontation only one has an army of special forces, known as white shirts, willing to extract a price for defiance in blood. There is something vertiginous now about the display of all that courage under the lengthening shadow of Tiananmen Square, in a nation whose government has long appeared to view China’s as a model. President Obama has so far struck the right notes by upholding the human and civil rights of the protesters without interfering in Iran’s internal politics. But a bigger showdown is coming. If the Islamic Republic dares to mow down those ebullient crowds, it will write itself a villainous chapter in history and offend the conscience of the world. ♦