Moussavi Is Not The Obama of Iran

Duh. Next week’s revelation: Water is Wet. Really.

The Liberal blogosphere has turned Green. TPM and Rachel Maddow have become cheerleaders for what they think is the democratic movement of Iran. Obama and Kos have decided to stay out of the fray, while not criticizing others for commenting on the situation. On the Right Wing, there is talk that this cautious approach is somehow a betrayal of our allies in Iran. Remember how well McCain’s meddling in Georgia worked out.

As someone who grew up in another country (India) awash in conspiracy theories of American involvement in local politics, I believe that the best thing for Americans can do right now to support democracy in Iran is..nothing. Stay out of it. Obama, having lived abroad, understands this. As does Kos, for the same reason. Any whiff of American support for Moussavi will undermine him. The crowds in Teheran, chanting “Allahu Akbar”, will themselves turn against Moussavi if the US voices support for him.

As I write this, the Supreme Leader is giving a sermon in Teheran. Darkly warning against “arrogant Western powers” and asking for “prayer” and “divine guidance”. Even if the US Government stays out of it, if American media is involved, such as through blogs, it will be used against Moussavi and his party. In other words,

Don’t just do something. Stand there.

Besides, we may not really understand what is going on.

It is always a mistake to apply the American value system to a foreign country, with its very different history and culture. Iranians have their own ideas on how to organize their country. Quite justifiably, they are wary of Western, especially American, involvement in their politics. Every taxi driver in Teheran knows about the CIA sponsored coup of 1952. Every college student knows that the Shah of Iran and his Peacock throne were frauds imposed on the Iranian people by the Western powers. Look a bit back in history and you will find out about the humiliating tax treaty that Lord Curzon imposed on Iran, which reduced it to a mere vassal of the British Empire. Iranians paid in blood to rid the country of the Shah, and foreign meddling in their affairs, in 1978. Any credible politician in Iran is a product of that revolution.

Moussavi is no exception. He may be more skilled than Ahmedinejad in politics. Not as much of a provocateur. But make no mistake about it: Moussavi is as committed to the Iranian revolution and to the concept of “Religious Democracy” as the Ayatollah Khamenei. Moussavi promises to continue the Iran nuclear program. When he was Prime Minister, he was not especially known as a Liberal Reformer. In fact, Rafsanjani has greater claims as a reformer than Moussavi, despite his corruption.

I say that Moussavi is not the Obama of Iran, because Obama is a unique product of the American political establishment. To transfer the enthusiasm and hope we feel about Obama to a leader in a different country, working under entirely different conditions, is a mistake. This is not to say that Moussavi is a bad choice as President for Iran. The point is that it is not our choice: it is theirs.

Was there vote rigging in Iran? Probably. But it has to be dealt with by Iranians. We can quietly help them, may be by giving them access to internet servers to spread the word. But any open accusations of vote rigging will only strengthen the theocratic establishment there.

What is happening in Iran is a power struggle between two groups within its religious establishment. Both Moussavi and Ahmedinejad are pawns in this game. The election is just one move. To people convinced that they are privy to the word of God, re-assigning a few million votes to their chosen candidate comes easy. Khamenei mentioned Rafsanjani by name in his sermon, but not yet (as I am writing this) Moussavi. He is just not that important. The real power struggle is happening within the Guardian Council, which looks upon the voting public as wards who need to be guided to the right decision. They claim to be the calm ones, able to decide what is best for the country through prayer and contemplation. Demostrations and elections are, in their view, mere expressions of passion, like the temper tantrums of children.

No matter who wins, Iran will remain a theocracy tempered by a limited democracy. That makes it more democratic then many other Muslim countries: more than Egypt, Syria, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. But less so than Turkey, Indonesia or Malaysia. There is no chance of another revolution or a counter-revolution in Iran. There is nothing constructive the West can do in Iran. No matter who wins, Iran will become a nuclear power in the not too distant future. It is up to the rest of the world to accept these realities and work with them. Crude demonstrations of support for one side or the other in this internal struggle among Mullahs can backfire. Obama understands this. Many of his supporters do not. Nor his opponents on the American Right Wing.

Let us wait for the Iranian process to play out. And have the humility to accept the outcome whether or not it is the one we think we want. That is the best we can do. It is, after all, their country.

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