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Thursday, June 11, 2009

And Iran, Iran So Far Away

Tomorrow's elections in Iran are exposing a side of Iran that Americans don't often see: that, in its own odd way, Iran is a kind of democracy, albeit an illiberal one.

Voter choices are constrained so that only those within the elite theocratic consensus can run, and elected leaders have limited powers, especially when weighed against the clerics of the Guardian Council. But as this NPR report shows, that doesn't mean the elections are meaningless or that campaigns lack energy, passion, and ideological distinction. It is a testimony to democracy itself, as both ideal and practice, that it can wield such force even in such inhospitable circumstances. We often think about the pressures that anti-democratic forces exert even in the most democratic nations, but the reverse may also be true. If Mousavi can defeat Ahmadinejad, it will be a victory both for the Obama administration, in its devotion to "soft power," and for the Iranian people, in their desire to modernize and turn a more hopeful eye toward the West.

But these elections, however they turn out, also reveal an irony of American conservatism. For all its anti-Iranian saber rattling, our right really dreams of something like a Christian Iran: a truncated democracy where religious leaders and secular reactionaries wield outsized power. Indeed, Ahmadinejad cuts a very Bushian figure. He's a well-educated and bellicose nationalist who panders to the most retrograde forces in the Iranian political world, a reconstructor of the glory days of the 1980s (Khomeini vs. Reagan), who unapolegetically embraces the language of "evil" to describe his enemies, while showing contempt for international norms. Indeed, the simultaneous rise of Khomeini and Reagan, both on the backs of culture war fundamentalists, represented parallel movements in very different political cultures, much as the 1960s produced counterculture movements and student revolts across the globe. Khomeini implicitly recognized their brotherhood when he waited to release the plane of hostages until after Reagan had sworn his oath of office.

All of which suggests that, as much as these religious reactionaries traffic in nationalism, political movements in general, even the anti-modern and anti-international ones, have become increasingly globalized in the last several decades. In its rhetorical extremism against Iran--and I think here of people like John Bolton and Bill Kristol--the American right is reacting against a mirror image of itself, making its brinkmanship a strangely Freudian exercise in self-loathing. We have met the enemy and he is us, as Pogo said. Here's hoping that tomorrow in Iran will be more 2008 than 2004.


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