The U.S. and Iran: Democracy, Terrorism, and Nuclear Weapons

July 26, 2005

The election of the hard-line Teheran mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, over former President Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani as the new head of Iran is undeniably a setback for those hoping to advance greater social and political freedom in that country. It should not necessarily be seen as a turn to the right by the Iranian electorate, however. The 70-year old Rafsanjani—a cleric and penultimate wheeler-dealer from the political establishment—was portrayed as the more moderate conservative. The fact that he had become a millionaire while in government was apparently seen as less important than his modest reform agenda. By contrast, the young Teheran mayor focused on the plight of the poor and cleaning up corruption.

In Iran, real political power rests with unelected military, economic, and right-wing ideologues, and in the June 25 runoff election, Iranian voters were forced to choose between two flawed candidates. The relatively liberal contender came across as an out-of-touch elitist, and his ultraconservative opponent was able to assemble a coalition of rural, less-educated, and fundamentalist voters to conduct a pseudopopulist campaign based on promoting morality and value-centered leadership. Such a political climate should not be unfamiliar to American voters.

Of course, Washington did not provide the Iranians with much incentive to elect another relative progressive to lead their country. Since the 1997 election of the outgoing reformist President Mohammed Khatami, the United States has strengthened its economic sanctions against Iran and has even threatened military attack. Although most Iranians would like improved relations with the United States, they apparently got the message that U.S. hostility toward their country would continue whomever they chose as president.

Washington’s primary criticisms of Teheran focus on the Iranian government’s suppression of political freedom, its support for terrorism and subversion, and its nuclear program. Though all three of these are legitimate areas of concern for the international community, the double standards exhibited by both the Bush administration and the bipartisan congressional leadership in pressing these issues have done little to promote individual liberty, counterterrorism, and nonproliferation in Iran or the region as a whole.

U.S. Criticism of the Electoral Process

The Bush administration has attempted to use the flawed election process in the Islamic Republic of Iran to further isolate that country and discredit its government. Yet, despite a call by some U.S.-based exiles for a boycott, more than two-thirds of Iran’s eligible voters went to the polls during the first round, a higher percentage than in recent U.S. presidential elections.

Many, though not all, reform-minded candidates were prevented from running, and since President Khatami was unable to significantly liberalize the political system, unelected ultraconservative clerics are still capable of dominating Iran. Despite these very real limitations, however, the election campaign was utilized by the growing pro-democracy movement to encourage greater political discourse and to deepen popular involvement in the civic process.

For the first time since Iran became a republic a quarter century ago, a presidential election was forced into a second round. The disappointment with the choices offered led to a much lower voter turnout during the runoff, but the majority of Iranians apparently considered the outcome significant enough to warrant their involvement in the electoral process. Most Iranians felt they had at least some stake in the system.

Still, President Bush insisted that the Iranian vote failed to meet “the basic requirements of democracy” and that the “oppressive record” of the country’s rulers made the election illegitimate.1 Such comments appear to have actually catalyzed Iranian voters from across the political spectrum, many of whom recall how the United States engineered the overthrow of their country’s last genuinely democratic government in 1953 and backed the repressive regime of the unelected shah until his ouster in a popular revolution in 1979.

Efforts by the Bush administration to portray the political situation in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan as superior to Iran’s similarly failed to convince Iranian voters. Although those countries recently experienced relatively fair electoral processes, both are suffering from bloody insurgency campaigns led by Islamic extremists and even bloodier counterinsurgency campaigns orchestrated by the United States. Moreover, Baghdad and Kabul exercise little direct control over much of their respective countries, and neither of these elected governments has thus far been able to demonstrate any real independence from U.S. military and economic domination.

A look at most other U.S. allies in the region does not offer much inspiration for those desiring greater freedom and democracy, either. There are no competitive elections for president, for prime minister, or for any kind of legislature that can initiate and pass meaningful laws and make real policy in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, or Azerbaijan, even though these autocratic governments are bolstered by U.S. military and economic aid. Indeed, the majority of U.S.-allied governments in the region are even less democratic than Iran.

At least the ruling Iranian government does not massacre demonstrators by the hundreds or boil dissidents to death, as does the U.S-backed Karimov regime in Uzbekistan. Nor do current Iranian leaders usurp most of the nation’s riches and restrict political power to a single extended family, like the U.S.-backed family dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and the other sheikdoms of the Arabian Peninsula. And Iranian voters were spared election day brutalities like those in Egypt under the U.S.-backed Mubarak dictatorship, where police recently escorted pro-government thugs to attack a group of women who dared to hold a nonviolent protest in support of greater political freedom.

Such double standards in no way justify the repression, the lack of real choices in the election process, and the many other failures by Iranian leaders to conform to international standards of human rights and representative government. They do, however, indicate that Washington’s bipartisan emphasis on the lack of democracy and human rights in Iran stems not out of a desire to enhance these ideals but rather from an urge to punish, isolate, and militarily threaten an oil-rich country that refuses to sufficiently cooperate with U.S. economic and strategic designs in the Middle East.



Nuclear and Chemical Weapons