Iran, Tyranny and Democracy

Administration officials in Washington have been quick to venture fierce criticisms of the forthcoming presidential elections in Iran, which are being held this week to find a successor to the outgoing President Khatami.

Administration officials in Washington have been quick to venture fierce criticisms of the forthcoming presidential elections in Iran, which are being held this week to find a successor to the outgoing President Khatami. Emphasising George W. Bush's proclaimed wish to sponsor democracy "from Damascus to Tehran", State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns has argued that the elections will "represent another setback for the democratic hopes of the Iranian people"[i], while Condoleeza Rice claimed on 19 May that Iran has been taken ‘out of step' with events elsewhere in the Middle East by its lack of democracy. 

In one sense, of course, these claims are perfectly convincing. From the thousands of hopefuls who wanted to run in the forthcoming contest, only eight have not been barred by the hardline Guardian Council, the constitutional watchdog that also allowed only like-minded candidates to run in last year's parliamentary elections. What's more, just one of these presidential candidates, Mustafa Moin, has strong ‘reformist' credentials while only Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the frontrunner in the race, probably has the weight and confidence required to take on vested interests and wrestle some initiative away from the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who pulls the strings of power in the Islamic Republic. Women have also been disenfranchised en masse, while Islamic vigilantes are reported to have been busily at work, using violence or the threat of force to intimidate Moin's supporters into backing down.

Yet for all of these severe curtailments, ordinary Iranians still have significantly more "freedom" than their unfortunate counterparts in other, even more oppressive, parts of the world. In some Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia for example, they are unlikely ever to see a ballot box at all, while elections in others countries, like North Korea, are just single party affairs that parade candidates with almost identical agendas. In Iran, by contrast, Mr Moin has as much chance to win the race as any other candidates and could bring a range of political reforms that could whet the appetite of ordinary Iranians for further changes. 

Viewed in these terms, the Iranian elections should act as a reminder of an obvious but rarely-mentioned truth that fits uncomfortably with President Bush's ambitions for his second term: that it is often far from clear what does and does not constitute a "democracy" or "tyranny". A classic case in point is Pakistan, which has been ruled for much of its 58-year old history by its army and whose parliamentary elections have always been rigged on a large scale. 

But one of the most alarming single examples of the elision of ‘democracy' and tyranny' is contemporary Britain. In recent years, the powers of our own unelected judiciary, and of the unelected political elites who stand at the heart of the European Union, have grown enormously at the expense of the parliamentary politicians who are supposed to debate and draw up legislation; there are strict, politically correct taboos that restrict our freedom of speech as severely as they inhibit free and fair discussion in the United States; governments manipulate the media extensively, using means far more subtle than Orwell ever imagined; postal ballots are now legal and have brought numerous allegations of electoral fraud; and the public is sometimes asked by government officials to take on trust the validity of "intelligence information" that is on occasion politically highly convenient.

It is difficult not to be reminded of Tocqueville's observations about democracy in America. "I know no country in which, speaking generally, there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America", as he wrote in his classic work[ii]. Freedom, he continued, is restricted not by rules and regulations but by a "bandwagon" and the creation of "a formidable fence" that brings "woe to the man who goes beyond it" by inflicting "all kind of unpleasantness and everyday persecution" if he dares to do so.

Which brings us back to the statements of Nicholas Burns, Condoleeza Rice and numerous other administration officials about the politics of Iran. One of the many difficulties of publicly condemning another country's domestic politics in this way is that to do so fosters a misleading bi-polarity between ‘tyranny' and ‘democracy'. Unfortunately this can have dangerous consequences because, by championing the United States as a role model for the rest of the world to follow, such an impression makes us more complacent about the dangers that threaten our own freedoms. Yet in the contemporary age we can ill-afford to be so complacent but should instead be ever more vigilant about what lies ahead.

[i] Statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 19 May 2005

[ii] Part II, Chapter 7 Democracy in America, Harper Collins, London 1994

Roger Howard's book on this subject, Iran in Crisis? Nuclear Ambitions and the American Response can be found here
 

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