Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Iran: Behind the caricature

The New York Times Magazine may be the best weekly publication in the country, bar none. It's the reason I buy the Sunday New York Times. It's ability to make me interested in things I didn't know I cared about -- or provide fresh, relevant perspectives on things I already do -- is unparalleled, in my opinion.

With all the talk about Iran, it's hardline president and its nuclear ambitions, informed perspective is largely absent. So naturally, along comes the magazine with an article from a correspondent who traveled around Iran before and after the Dec. 16 elections there.

It's well worth a read, even if it's now behind the Times Select wall. We'll start with a section discussing the immediate aftermath of the elections, in which president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's slate of candidates was soundly defeated.

By mid-January, Ahmadinejad's isolation even within his own faction was complete: 150 of 290 members of parliament, including many of Ahmadinejad's onetime allies, signed a letter criticizing the president's economic policies for failing to stanch unemployment and inflation. A smaller group also blamed Ahmadinejad's inflammatory foreign-policy rhetoric for the United Nations Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Iran. As if that were not enough, an editorial in Jomhouri Eslami, a newspaper that reflects the views of the supreme leader, accused the president of using the nuclear issue to distract the public from his failed policies. Ahmadinejad's behavior was diminishing popular support for the nuclear program, the editorial warned. The Iranian political system seems to be restoring its equilibrium by showing an extremist president the limits of his power.

Iran isn't a full democracy, of course. While elections are held for lower positions, ultimate power is wielded by the unelected council of clerics headed by Ali Khamenei. But that just demonstrates the limits of Ahmadinejad's influence. He is not aligned with Khamenei. His faction is populist and hardline -- often called "neoconservative", in fact. The clerics, while conservative, have grown pragmatic during their years of rule. And they know they are riding a delicate balance between using limited democracy to avoid unrest and allowing too much democracy and losing control.

Iran also faces the same problem that Israel does: trying to decide whether it is a democracy or a religious state.

A hardline cleric known as Ayatollah Crocodile, Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, is one of Ahmadinejad's main allies. He has famously inveighed against democracy, free speech and women's rights. He has called public execution and flogging "a basic principle of Islam." Islam is the only right way and "the people are ignorant sheep." He also complained about the need to break the "unnecessary" taboo on violence in order to properly confront Islamic reformists.

Swell guy, and the article contains even more outrageous statements by him or his followers. But his main point, for my purposes here, is that Islamic rule and democracy are incompatible.

And he's right; they are. Even reformists agree with him.

"In a sense, many people, including myself, we believe that Mesbah is right," Sadegh Zibakalam, a reformist Tehran University professor, reflected when I visited him at his mother's home in north Tehran in December. "Trying to make an amalgam of Western, liberal, democratic ideas and Shiite theology is nonsense. It doesn't work."

Later, he added: "Either Khamenei is infallible, or he's not. If he's not, then he is an ordinary person like Bush or Blair, answerable to the Parliament and the people. If he is, then we should throw away all this nonsense about Western values and liberal democracy. Either we have Western liberal philosophy, republican government and checks and balances, or we should stick to Mesbah."

Unfortunately, both democracy and Islam are enshrined in Iran's constitution. So Iran, so solid-looking from the outside, is actually engulfed in an ongoing crisis of legitimacy -- and one that cannot easily be solved.

To this day, the structure of the Iranian state remains too liberal for the authoritarians and too authoritarian for the liberals, but the traditional conservatives at the center of power cannot resolve this obvious paradox at the republic's heart without relinquishing their own position.

And there are other weaknesses.

The Iranian economy has been mismanaged at least since the revolution, and to fix it would require measures no populist would be willing to take. Under Ahmadinejad, inflation has risen; foreign investors have scorned Iranian markets, fearing political upheaval or foreign invasion; the Iranian stock market has plummeted; Iranian capital has fled to Dubai. Voters I talked to pointed to the prices of ordinary foodstuffs when they wanted to explain their negative feelings about the government. According to Iranian news sources, from January to late August 2006 the prices of fruits and vegetables in urban areas rose by 20 percent. A month later, during Ramadan, the price of fruit reportedly doubled while that of chicken rose 10 percent in mere days. Housing prices in Tehran have reached a record high. Unemployment is still widespread. And Ahmadinejad's approval rating, as calculated by the official state television station, had dipped to 35 percent in October.

Catch that? Ahmadinejad's approval rating is about as high as President Bush's. So on one level, when it comes to Iran, we have two unpopular leaders rattling swords at each other in an effort to rally support for themselves. It's almost a cooperative venture.

The article goes on to note that Iran is relatively wealthy, urbanized, educated and modern, with a large middle class. All of these things encourage moderation when it comes to meaningful politics and international diplomacy. Which is why Ahmadinejad's fiery rhetoric helped his faction get stomped in December.

Secor closes:

For a Western traveler in Iran these days, it is hard to avoid a feeling of cognitive dissonance. From a distance, the Islamic republic appears to be at its zenith. But from the street level, Iran's grand revolutionary experiment is beset with fragility. The state is in a sense defined by its contradictions, both constitutional and economic. It cannot be truly stable until it resolves them, and yet if it tries to do so, it may not survive.

Don't get me wrong. I still think Iran is a poster child for "countries that should not be allowed to have nuclear weapons." They are still more despotic than democratic. But as with most things, and especially with regards to things in the Middle East, the reality is far more complicated than the reductionist labels and rhetoric imply. And that is why dialogue and engagement with Iran is likely to produce more results -- both in Iraq and in the nuclear arena -- then confrontation. Oh, military power and economic sanctions are part of the dialogue. But they should not -- really, cannot -- be the only tools.

Understand your enemy if you wish to either defeat or co-opt him. We failed that lesson miserably in Iraq. Let's not make the same mistake in Iran.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

President Ahmadinejad's real views are summarized on this website: ahmadinejadquotes.blogspot.com

2/08/2007 8:29 AM  

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