By Swapan Dasgupta
For most Indians interested in life beyond our national boundaries, the primary source of information is the Western media. Consequently, it is not surprising that there was an expectation that Saturday morning would mark the beginning of a new chapter in the politics of Iran. Going by the heady excitement of American and British TV reporters at the spectacularly high voter turnout in Teheran and elsewhere, viewers would be forgiven for harbouring the impression that the presidential election would be a veritable turning point in the history of a great country.
It wasn’t the media alone that delighted in the winds of change blowing across Persia—the TV images of enthusiastic, well groomed men and women forming a million-strong human chain across Teheran were quite heady. Bowled over by the imagined impact of his word play in Cairo earlier this month, President Barack Obama even thought it prudent to comment on the election in Iran. “We are excited to see”, he told reporters last Friday afternoon, “…a robust debate taking place in Iran and obviously, after the speech that I made in Cairo, we tried to send a clear message that we think there’s a possibility of change. And ultimately, the election is for the Iranians to decide. But just as what has been true in Lebanon, what can be true in Iran as well, is that you’re seeing people looking at new possibilities.”
Cut out the routine caveat about the decision being up to Iranians, there was little ambiguity in Obama’s endorsement of “new possibilities”.
In the end it was a colossal anti-climax. To use the immortal words of historian AJP Taylor, it was a turning point in history when history refused to turn. With most of the votes counted, incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has secured nearly 66 per cent of the votes against 31 per cent polled by his main opponent Mir Hossein Mousavi.
Assuming that there was no hanky-panky (and there is absolutely no evidence of this), it appears that the Western perception of Iran had been governed by a staggering measure of irrational exuberance. The West, it would seem, had erred in transposing its subjective preferences on the people of Iran.
Yes, there was enthusiastic middle-class support for Mousavi. Yes, Mousavi’s articulate middle-class and youth supporters were looking for avenues to repair Iran’s relationship with the West. Yes, there was a strong undercurrent in favour of a large measure of social liberalism, particularly an enlargement of women’s rights. And yes, the modernist sections of Iranian society were never comfortable with the cultural idiom of Ahmadinejad. In their mind he was too much of an outlander and a storm-trooper for the theologians who have the final say over public policy.
Although Mousavi had been approved by the theologians as a safe candidate, ie someone who was acceptable within the broad parameters of the Islamic Republic, it was quite clear that he was being propelled by those for whom “secular” statecraft held greater attraction. In short, regardless of Mousavi’s personal inclinations, his victory was calculated to trigger a movement for more fundamental changes in the way Iran is run.
The drive for reforms would not have left the Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Hoseyni Khamenei unaffected. According to the present arrangement, the Spiritual Leader has control over foreign policy, the military (including the nuclear programme), law enforcement and justice. Although the elected President is Iran’s face in the world, his primary responsibilities are limited to the economy and education.
In suggesting the primacy of reformist impulses, the West erred grievously. There is an inclination for Western diplomats and its media to attach disproportionate importance to the views of those they are either in agreement with, or those with whom they enjoy a convivial social relationship. Broadly speaking, foreign journalists and diplomats interact meaningfully with those who are fluent in English and not socially conservative. It was interesting to note that few journalists covering the Iranian election actually made the effort to find out what made Ahmadinejad tick with the poor and the working classes.
The Daily Telegraph reporter landed up at an Ahmadinejad rally and was surprised to discover that the President enjoys a cult among people the diplomats and media aren’t accustomed to meeting. The rally, he wrote with more than a touch of amusement and condescension, “combined the fervour of a religious gathering, the jostling crowds of a rock gig moshpit, and the carefully choreographed build-up of a World Wrestling Federation grudge match”. It’s the “great unwashed” that gave Ahmadinejad a categorical second term. It was in many ways a class war.
But last week’s verdict doesn’t sound the death-knell of Iranian liberalism. There is a tremendous energy within middle-class Iran that feels stifled by rigid social taboos and the strictures on personal and intellectual freedom. However, the political expressions of these frustrations are stymied by the association of liberalism with the West, an association that raises both conservative and nationalist hackles. After all, despite what Obama said in Cairo, Iranian nationalism is at odds with the West over a dispute that is nominally over nuclear weapons but which translates on the ground as an issue of national self-esteem.
However, this is a schism that Iran cannot afford to either suppress or allow to fester. President Ahmadinejad has a pugnacious style. He loves a good fight and this is the basis of his success. But if he wants Iran to pull together, he has to walk that extra mile to reassure Mousavi’s supporters that there is a place for them in Iran’s power structure. That means loosening the control of the theologians. Otherwise Iran will suffer from an internal subversion and will allow the West opportunities to fish in troubled waters.