Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Two Irans (Robert Worth)

A good piece by Robert Worth in today's New York Times "Week in Review".

Although it seems clear that the presidential election was stolen--or, at the very least, that the official election results wildly inflated the number of votes for Ahmadinejad--it is important to remember that Ahmadinejad and the forces he represents also enjoy real popular support. Worth concludes:
Both sides now view themselves as the true Iranian majority. It is not yet clear how any future vote count might persuade either side otherwise.
I recommend reading the whole article. Some highlights are below.

--Jeff Weintraub

Ascertaining what the true Iran is has never been harder. What is clear, though, is that the electoral dispute has exposed a deep rift in Iranian society, one that cannot be measured or healed by vote counts. On each side, faith merges with perception, making the partisans believe with fierce certainty that they represent the country’s true majority.

The difference is sometimes caricatured as one between a Westernized urban elite and the pious lower classes. In fact, it is not that simple, even if there is little doubt about who all those fashionable Tehrani women in jeans and loose head scarves voted for. A vast opposition rally on Monday — in which more than a million people are believed to have taken part — was also full of people who looked more like Ahmadinejad supporters: women in traditional Islamic garb, and working-class men.

In essence, the core of the struggle is between two competing views of what this country’s Islamic revolution sought to achieve.

“One side wants a gradual evolution of democratic institutions and a more democratic reading of Islamic institutions,” said Kavous Seyed-Emami, a political science professor at Imam Sadeq University in Tehran. “The other side is for a populist and more or less authoritarian reading of Islam.”

Over the past week, those differences have often been boiled down to slogans. “Death to the dictator!” chanted supporters of Mir Hussein Moussavi, the lead opposition candidate. “Death to those who oppose the rule of the clerics!” was the refrain on the other side. [....]

In part, the split revolves around opposed understandings of Iran’s political evolution since the 1979 revolution. For the opposition, a defining moment came in 1997, when the reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami won the presidency in a landslide. Many in the opposition see that as a natural growth from the incendiary radicalism that founded the Islamic Republic to a more mature and democratic style of governance. Mr. Khatami’s broad victory margin — which was repeated in 2001 — still feeds their sense that they are the country’s true majority.

On the other side, many people see the same years as a gradual falling away from the zeal of the republic’s early years. Even those who admire Mr. Khatami often complain about corruption among leading officials, especially former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

For them, Mr. Ahmadinejad was the first president who seemed to understand Iran’s poor and working class, and who seemed capable of fulfilling the revolution’s promises of economic and social justice. They also respond to his aggressive nationalist rhetoric, which is rooted in a longstanding fear that Iran has been bullied, politically and culturally, by the West. By contrast, many younger and more cosmopolitan Iranians would like firmer connections to the outside world.

The past few weeks have helped widen the gulf. After years in which they felt downcast and helpless, opposition partisans saw the sudden birth of a popular movement in support of Mr. Moussavi that exceeded their hopes. Rallies began drawing tens of thousands of cheering people. The streets of Tehran and other major cities began exploding after dark with carnivalesque street celebrations, in which young people danced and dressed in the signature bright-green color of the Moussavi campaign. Word of the events spread by Facebook, which — like other new Internet technologies — proved a challenge for the authorities to control. Women became a driving force, emboldened by Mr. Moussavi’s ground-breaking decision to campaign alongside his wife, the distinguished political scientist Zahra Rahnavard.

As the rallies gathered force in Tehran and elsewhere, a conviction began to ripen: the country belonged, once again, to the partisans of democratic reform. Large numbers of Iranians who had voted for Mr. Khatami, and who — frustrated by his failure to put his ideas into practice — had sat out the vote in 2005, said they would return to the polls. The result seemed inevitable. A number of polls by opposition researchers suggested that Mr. Moussavi would not only survive to the second round; he would win in the first, by a decisive margin. [....]

But on the other side, there was no lack of confidence. Many Iranians said they thought Mr. Ahmadinejad had won the nationally televised debates, despite the criticism he received for his aggressive style. He had spent much of the previous four years traveling around Iran, visiting big cities and small towns in a way that no previous president had done. [....]

A few days before the election, Hossein Shariatmadari, the general director of the hard-line government newspaper Kayhan and a close confidant of Iran’s supreme leader, offered his own serenely confident prediction. Mr. Ahmadinejad would win easily.

“President Ahmadinejad is well-embraced by all the people,” said Mr. Shariatmadari, a courtly man who has links to the intelligence services and is widely feared in Iran. “He has special characteristics that people want in an ideal president.”

In retrospect, many Iranians now read such predictions as a wink from the clerical elite. They did not just want Mr. Ahmadinejad to win, it is said. They wanted him to win big, so as to persuade the reformers that they were a minority, and to erase the stain of Mr. Khatami’s reformist landslides.

Instead, the election and the dispute that followed had an entirely different and unexpected result: Both sides now view themselves as the true Iranian majority. It is not yet clear how any future vote count might persuade either side otherwise.