Iran's Human Face is Gone

June 29, 2005
The Times
Michael Gove

Iran's human face is gone. Hardline vote-riggers have spirited it away

The recent Iranian presidential elections were a triumph for the principle of one man, one vote. And the man with the vote this time, as always, was the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran’s new President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, may well be the choice of the urban poor, the anti-sleaze candidate and the favourite of the military. But ultimately, he’s the winner because he’s also the guy who did best with one key demographic — bearded sixtysomething clerics called Ali who enjoy wielding supreme power within theocratic republics.

Even before the first vote was cast, a thousand potential presidential candidates were barred from running by the state’s Guardian Council, itself hand-picked by Ayatollah Khamenei. The two rounds of voting that Iran just held were charades, Potemkin exercises designed to give the outside world the illusion that the Islamic Republic could hold an open election and sustain the lie that its leaders enjoy popular backing.

The television pictures of voters queueing to get to the polls were taken from previous elections, the polling stations themselves were policed by fundamentalist militias, ballot papers were held in reserve to ensure the vote went the prescribed way and the figures eventually announced were manufactured in a fashion that would have brought a tear to the eye of Saddam himself.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the second round of the presidential election with 17,248,782 votes. In the first round he got just 5,710,354 votes. In one week he secured the support of an extra 11,500,000 people, trebling his popularity, and scooping dramatically more votes than those earned in the first round by all the “hardline” candidates put together. All while the recorded turnout actually dropped. The figures just don’t add up. And that’s because they’re made up. No independent observers are allowed to monitor what happens in polling stations, to scrutinise ballot boxes or attend counts. That would be to let daylight in upon the magic of theologically guided democracy.

Instead, Iran’s ruling fundamentalist elite makes its dispositions, plucks the appropriate figures out of the air to lend support their choice, and then European chancelleries rush to play their appointed role in this farce by welcoming the people’s choice to his new office.

There is, however, one important difference between this Iranian election and previous polls. It confirms the change in strategic direction decided on by Ayatollah Khamenei and his allies in the past 18 months or so, and apparent in their conduct of the 2004 parliamentary elections. That poll was every much an exercise in chicanery as last week’s election, with huge numbers of candidates excluded even from consideration and comprehensive result- rigging. But what was significant, and different, about both these elections was the Iranian regime’s decision to abandon their previous policy of fundamentalism with a human face and replace it with something altogether more uncompromising.

Before 2004 the Iranian leadership had allowed figures to emerge who were portrayed as reformists, such as former President Mohammad Khatami. He was sold to the West, and indeed to Iranian democrats, as a moderniser. His election was designed to lure the West into a policy of conciliation rather than confrontation with the Islamic Republic, while mollifying growing popular demands within Iran for regime change. Having succeeded in embroiling the EU’s foreign ministers in negotiation (Jack Straw has been to Tehran more than any other foreign capital apart from Brussels and Washington) Iran then proceeded to see just how robust the Europeans were prepared to be. They escalated their rhetoric against Israel, calling for the state’s annihilation, escalated their nuclear programme in defiance of every international agreement, and they escalated their own campaign of repression, imprisoning democrats, torturing them and releasing them on “medical leave” so families could see the horrific price to be paid for dissent.

Not only did Iran pay no price for this behaviour, it continued to enjoy the EU’s flattering attentions, not least because European leaders were desperate to show that their softly-softly negotiation could be more successful in the Middle East than American “bellicosity”. The biggest victims of this process have been the democratic Iranian opposition, who have been rewarded for their bravery in standing up to fundamentalism by seeing their oppressors indulged by the EU. The Iranian regime’s decision now to select a President who does not even make a pretence of being “reformist” is designed to crush the spirit of the reform movement, by indicating that the regime no longer feels the need to make even cosmetic concessions. And its also designed to exploit the constitutional weakness of Europeans who do not have the will to hold Iran to account, as well as the apparent weakness of a US President judged to lack the political capital to deal with Iraq and Iran at the same time.

The Iranian regime’s clear belief that the West is weak suggests that it is preparing to press ahead with its ambitions to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, a goal that may be just months away. If the West is not to confirm a potentially fatal reputation for infirmity, we need to strike back, using the strongest allies we have in the region: the Iranian people themselves.

We need to provide hope to the millions who boycotted elections they knew would be frauds, run by crooks, to favour fascists. Western leaders should be asking Iran’s new President what he will do to free his country’s dissidents, like the heroic journalist Akbar Ganji who has suffered horrendously for daring to expose the corruption and criminality of Iran’s elites. Why isn’t our Foreign Secretary standing up for him, and his colleagues, as western politicians once stood up for Sakharov and Solzenhitsyn?

The longer our leaders remain silent in the battle for democracy in Iran, the more likely we are to see a far more ominous conflict escalate — between Iran and the democracies.

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