Change is in the air.
It’s not overreaching to see the page turned in last year’s presidential election as a fresh start with influence beyond our borders: a new, fundamentally different brand of foreign policy overseen by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a liberal braintrust couples with President Obama’s multiethnic, multinational background. Never in modern American history has there been such a new slate upon which to build, or rebuild, grafts of global community.
That’s the sunny-side view.
In the post-W. Bush era, following closely on the heels of President Obama’s speech of outreach to the Muslim world in Cairo, the lemony-sweet smell of change has gone international. Lithuania elected its first female president. Kuwait elected its first four women to its parliament, two of whom defeated conservative Islamist incumbents.
And then there’s Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who claimed an unexpectedly wide margin in his re-election much to the dubious dismay of his opponent, self-professed moderate reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi, his supporters and many international monitoring groups, now must account for his aggressive policies. Just as former British prime minister Tony Blair, former Australian prime minister John Howard and former president Bush all faced domestic democratic upheaval following the disastrous allied invasion of Iraq, Ahmadinejad can no longer claim that his vitriolic rhetoric – denying the Holocaust, demonizing the United States and the West, igniting religious fervor – speaks uniformly for his country, the Middle East or any organized religion.
In this suspect election and the subsequent public revolt, Iran has laid bare its humanity: On both sides of the conflict, it is this show of democratic self-determination that belies any claims that a holy war is at hand. This post-election melee suggests the utterly terrestrial struggles that all countries that claim or aspire to democratic ideals must face.
Democracy can be an ugly, complicated business, and those regimes around the world (and, occasionally, at home) that pretend to run free and fair elections invariably face their comeuppance when freedom is denied or deferred. Ahmadinejad need only look to the recent election fallouts of Kenya and Zimbabwe where, after attempting to quash true ballot results, the ruling parties were forced into a power-sharing agreement with the opposition.
Risking harassment, assault, imprisonment and perhaps torture and death by taking to the streets, moderate and progressive Iranians followed up their vote for change with their feet and voices in the streets, decrying their country’s descent into dictatorial, xenophobic fundamentalism.
But in a darker view, let us not think that this outpouring of public dissent in Iran must stand in and of itself for change. While Ahmadinejad has been his country’s most visible spokesperson on the international stage, it is Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who – as his title might suggest – supremely leads the country.
Iran is not a country where one election can structurally alter the makeup of its government. Khamenei will still be in power regardless of the outcome of the nominal recounts around the country. It is his will, tied closely to conservative Islamic law, that still holds sway.
This election must therefore serve as a wake-up call for the country rather than its revolution. President Obama has done well to temper his reaction, supporting the rights of all citizens for free and fair elections without tying too great a bond between the United States and the protesters.
This is an Iranian election with Iranian solutions and radicalism feeds radicalism – the West should moderate its response and not meddle and give fuel to the fundamentalist fire. Nothing would please the hard-liners in Iran more than to make this election about the “Great Satan” rather than the failed policies of the current government.
Protesters in the streets and world leaders on television must show restraint. True, stable change is sometimes very slow in coming.
Change and moderation do not come in the treads of tanks, as the West has learned and forgotten so many times, nor does it come from a single election and its fallout after decades of simmering hatred. Patience, a longstanding weakness of American character and policy, is vital in the region. An accurate and honestly bright view of modern Iran must see this past week as the foundation for change rather than its glorious arrival.
Shifting Sands?: The Fallout of the Iranian Presidential Election
Change is in the air.