Saturday, July 18, 2009

Defining the conflict in Iran

Juan Cole summarizes the two major opposing viewpoints contending in Iran's political crisis today. There is a real democratic element of the reformers' view. But the reformist leaders are not calling for a Western-style separation of church and state or the abolition of clerical authority. I would much rather see the United States be open to dealing with the messiness of more-democratic regimes than to actively favor authoritarian governments just because they may be more convenient to deal with in the short run. But an Iranian government controlled by the reformers wouldn't necessarily be more convenient for American foreign policy in the short run. Cole writes:

The reform movement and its allies among pragmatic conservatives have developed a narrative about Khomeinist Iran. They allege that it is ultimately democratic, and that the will of the people is paramount. It is popular sovereignty that authorizes political change and greater political and cultural openness. Precisely because democracy and popular sovereignty are the key values for this movement, the alleged stealing of the June 12 presidential elections by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for his candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is intolerable. A crime has been committed, in their eyes. A social contract has been violated. The will of the people has been thwarted.

The hard liners hold a competing and incompatible view of the meaning of Khomeini's 1979 revolution. They discount the element of elections, democracy and popular sovereignty. They view these procedures and institutions as little more than window-dressing. True power and authority lies with the Supreme Leader and ultimately all important decisions are made by him. Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Misbah-Yazdi is an important exponent of this authoritarian view of the Islamic Republic. The Leader in this view is a kind of philosopher-king, who can overrule the people at will. The hard liners do not believe that the election was stolen. But they probably cannot get very excited about the election in the first place. Khamenei and his power and his appointments and his ability to intervene to disqualify candidates, close newspapers, and overrule parliament are what is important. From a hard line point of view, the election is what Khamenei says it is and therefore cannot be stolen.
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