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Iran: A Nation in Turmoil


By Mohamed El-Khawas
Guyana Journal, July 2009

The world is witnessing a tragedy unfolding in Iran as a result of a mismanaged presidential election. Recent events have demonstrated how fragile the government is. It has had to resort to oppressive measures to silence the opposition and defend an outdated system. The government has shown complete disregard to rules of democracy. Basic individual rights to assemble and to express views are being trampled and political opponents are being taken from home and detained. The official media has remained silent on the violence committed by security forces and the paramilitary Basij in the streets of Tehran. They have attacked unarmed civilians, causing bodily harm and death to protesters who are calling for the annulment of the June 12th presidential election. The election is a turning point in the struggle of the Iranian people for more freedom and for internal reform to liberalize its social and political systems. The actions and sacrifices of the protestors have shown that business-as-usual is no longer acceptable. For the second time in recent years, citizens have challenged the clerical leadership, which have controlled and manipulated the political process for thirty years. Their story has to be told so their struggle will not be forgotten.

From the outset, the June 12th presidential election was a contest between the incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi. They offered the voters two very different platforms. Ahmadinejad is a populist who promised to help the poor and to make Iran a world power. During his first term, he raised wages, provided subsidies, and made free health available to all against the advice of economists. His program appealed to working class and rural voters - the majority of the population - who favor maintaining the status quo.

His rival Mousavi was not known to be liberal. As a prime Minister between 1981 and 1989, he was part of the revolutionary elite who ruled the country after the overthrow of the last Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979. But, in 2009, he stood for change, especially to reduce confrontation with the West and to manage the economy better. His platform attracted support from the urban middle class, including intellectuals and former political leaders, together representing about a third of the population. In Tehran, tens of thousands of young men and women participated in rallies supporting Mousavi wearing and waving green banners, the symbol of his party. This new spirit has excited Iranian youth abroad. In the U.S., younger Iranian-Americans felt proud of their homeland. They expressed open support to Iranians back home who had used cell phones, Facebook, and Twitter to keep in touch with the outside world. They kept the American public well informed of what was happening in Iran instantly. Daily images of Tehran protests were transmitted to friends and relatives in the U.S. who put them on the Internet for all to see.

Iranians, including Iranian-Americans, had turned out in massive numbers on June 12 to vote for the candidate of their choice. The polling stations across the country had to open two extra hours to accommodate the large turnout. According to government sources, 86 percent of the 46.2 million eligible voters cast vote. This was a phenomenal turnout. People truly believed that their vote could make a difference especially in a close contest. When the polls closed, both of the top contenders claimed victory. The following day, the Interior Ministry officials overseeing the vote count announced that President Ahmedinejad was leading by a ratio of 2 to 1 in the early count. Mousavi's supporters dismissed the announcement and accused the government of trying to steal the election. The candidate encouraged his supporters to continue demonstrations and pledged to "use all legal facilities and methods to restore the rights of the Iranian people."

When the election results were announced, Ahmedinejad had won by 62.3 percent of the vote and Mousavi received less than 34 percent of the vote. Mousavi rejected the vote count and asked his supporters to continue protesting the election outcome, which, he insisted, was rigged and manipulated. He also appealed to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to do something about it. His appeal was unheeded as Khamenei issued a statement declaring Ahmedinejad the winner and appealing to people, including the defeated candidates, to support the president. To placate protestors, he announced that a partial testing of the ballots would be done to address the allegations of irregularities. His announcement did not sit well with Mousavi's supporters who shouted "We want freedom" and "Death to the dictatorship." Violence erupted when the Basij militia, which was allied with the Ahmadinejad government, fired on protesters outside its offices in downtown Tehran, killing one person and wounding others. The angry crowd reacted by setting on fire part of the building and several motorcycles. The authorities rounded up Mousavi's operatives in Tehran. They hampered communications among his supporters by cutting cell phone services and filtering Facebook and Twitter sites in an effort to stop the transmission of information overseas. Ayatollah Khamenei told demonstrators to quit and threatened to use force to end their protest. The judiciary said that demonstrators would be swiftly persecuted. In the following days, security forces tried to enforce the ban on demonstrations. They shot at the crowd, killing and injuring protesters.

The Guardian Council, a panel of 12 senior clerics led by Khamenei, had the final say on the election. Its approval is the last step to validate the results and to declare a winner. Mousavi asked the Guardian Council to nullify the election because interference by security forces, printing millions of extra ballots, Ahmadinejad's supporters handing out cash bonuses and food, and other procedural irregularities. He also asked authorities to allow demonstrations in cities "as the best way to stop riots." His plea fell on deaf ears. At the end, the Council formally approved the election results, stating that they found no evidence of fraud or irregularities in their random testing of some ballots. Khamenei emphasized that millions of votes separated the winner and the loser. Ahmadinejad announced, "The election is gone and done. It is time for friendship, coalition and building the country." He compared the protestors to "soccer hooligans who were disappointed that their team lost the match."

The Iranian leaders were quick to blame foreigners for their troubles rather than to consider what is wrong with their system. They can no longer pretend that there is democracy there. Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post correctly pointed out the shortcomings of the political structure, "Iranians are not guaranteed freedom of speech or of the press. Political parties are heavily restricted. A small group of unelected clerics holds a monopoly on real political power, supervising elections as well as candidates."

This is the time for the Iranian leaders to evaluate a system that no longer meets the needs of the people in the twenty-first century. They have a choice to make. They can bury their heads in the sand and hope that the outdated system can survive until the next eruption of popular discontent. Their second choice is to proceed to reform the system to satisfy the younger generation, who make up a substantial portion of the population and who are the leaders of the future. Unfortunately, the choice is in the hands of the supreme leader Khamenei and the other eleven members of the Guardian Council. Whatever decision they take will have long-term consequences for Iran.

Washington, D.C.
July 07, 2009
Dr. Mohamed El-Khawas is a professor in the Department of Urban Affairs, Social Sciences, and Social Work at the University of the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C.

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