June 13, 2009

Democracy in Iran?

After the American Century

I have followed Iranian politics, casually to be sure, for almost half a century. This is for the simple reason that I had an aunt who married an Iranian lawyer and remained in the country after originally going there to teach. She had a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Michigan, a somewhat unusual achievement for a woman in c. 1940. There were few university jobs available then (i.e. probably none), and so she took a series of interesting positions working for the US government in agencies that were precursors for the Peace Corps. First she taught in Bolivia and Peru. where she perfected her Spanish. Later she taught English in India briefly, before ending up in Tehran.

My Aunt Gertrude was a powerful personality. Think of the strong women in American cinema from the same era, like Kathrine Hepburn. She was adventurous, eloquent, forceful, and a wonderful role model for a kid growing up. Th exotic aunt who not only had a professional job, but a series of positions in many parts of the world.

She gave most of her professional life to improving the teaching of English in Iran, putting in more than 25 years before the Shah's government fell. By then she was over sixty years old, and because she was perceived to be an old woman, she was left alone by the Revolution. This is not the place for more about her, but she remained in the country for several more years, until it became clear that she would never be allowed to teach or take an active part in the cultural life of the nation again. Then she returned to the US, with her Iranian daughter, who still lives there today. Aunt Gertrude herself lived to be over 90.

Now let me read this little story as a minature version of what has happened to Iran. Until 1979 the nation was modernizing rapidly, using its oil money to develop a middle-class. This middle class embraced foreigners like my Aunt, who had married one of their own, who spoke the language, and who had only the country's betterment at heart. But the growth of this middle-class also brought discontent with a monarchical form of government. The urban middle class wanted a democracy and more western form of government. But the rural people and the poor disliked the Shah for quite a different reason, because he was secularizing the society. Religious fundamentalism swept through the country, and the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini became the idealized leader who would return Iran to its religious roots.

The problem in late 1970s was that not enough people like my Aunt Gertrude had been there, nor had they been there long enough, to nurture the transition to a secular, democratic state. The forces against the Shaw were strong enough to topple him, but there was no unity amongst the university students, peasants, and religious leaders who together brought him down. In the ensuing power struggle, obviously won by the fundamentalists, many of the talented young (like my cousin, Aunt Gertrude's daughter) left the country for ever.

In the election yesterday, the struggle appears once again to be between city and country, between middle class and rural peasants, and between modern Muslims and fundamentalists. The basic inconsistency, the core problem that came to light in the late 1970s, has not yet been resolved. But the terms of struggle have changed someone. For no truly secular figure had a chance in this election. Rather, the two leading candidates were each to the right of where their counterparts might have been thirty years ago. The current President Ahmadinejad is a right-wing demagogue who revels in confrontation with the West. His strongest opponent , Mir Hossein Mousavi, is a former prime minister of the country, and generally defined as a "right-wing reformer." This I translate to mean that his policies are at least informed by economic theory and pragmatic evaluations of consequences. A liberal he is not.

Both men have claimed victory. The government began playing games with the telephone system during the election, controls the media which all too-quickly announced a decisive victory for the incumbent, and has already used police to break up peaceful demonstrations in favor of Mousavi. Ideally this crisis will end well, with a run-off election between the two main candidates, as prescribed by law if no one receives more than half the votes. But it may be too soon for such a disciplined and secular outcome, and Iran could be falling into an intractable crisis.