A Few Thoughts Before We 'Liberate' Iran

It appears as though the long knives are out in Washington. Career operatives in the CIA and State Department who opposed the neocons’ attempt to "sex up" the intel during the run-up to the Iraq War are being purged wholesale. Various cliques at the CIA, who systematically leaked information to the press about just how bad things are in Iraq, are being replaced by yes-men or ideologues who can be relied upon to "toe the administration line". Anyone still doubting the Trotskyite ancestry of the neocons should finally be convinced by this housecleaning, which is being perpetrated in a manner that would make Chairman Mao blush (and which is also compromising our security by terminating numerous experienced intelligence analysts).

Meanwhile, the drumbeat for an attack against Iran continues more stridently than ever. Elements within this administration are opening a propaganda campaign designed to sabotage the European Union’s attempt to negotiate an agreement with Iran concerning its nuclear weapons program. Rumors and innuendo are being spread about the deceit of the Europeans, the duplicity of the Iranians, and the impotence of diplomacy as a means to solve this dispute.

Given this record, it is becoming increasingly obvious that President Bush is now wholly on-board with the neocons’ agenda and that an Iranian conflict may be on the way. After all, Karl Rove was famously quoted as saying that there must be "no war in ’04” due to the impending election. This, of course, says nothing about ’05.

But before we begin the saturation bombing, antiwar Americans should take the time to investigate the realities of Iran so as to be more informed about the political realities of that ancient land. One of the greatest resources I’ve found concerning Iranian politics is The Last Great Revolution. Written by journalist Robin Wright, who has reported for The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, it is a veritable treasure-trove of information.

The current pro-war narrative being spun by the administration basically revolves around assertions that Iran is a dangerous dictatorship run by a band of fanatical mullahs. It is claimed that the nation is a cross between Inquisitional Spain and Soviet Russia, complete with a military-industrial complex manufacturing WMDs which will be passed on to Osama bin Laden for deadly terrorist attacks against America.

Since Americans should know by now to take everything that this administration says about WMDs with a huge grain of salt, it behooves us to treat this entire neocon narrative with intense skepticism.

Ms. Wright paints a much different picture than the one currently being spoon-fed to the American public. The Islamic Republic was officially born, she notes, in 1979 after a national referendum accepted the constitution and created the numerous institutions which now make up the Iranian government. That referendum, like all subsequent Iranian elections, was reasonably free and was carried out with a universal franchise (which included women).

The governing system was conceived by the Ayatollah Khomeini who, despite being a religious extremist, sought to create a unique political arrangement in Iran. Basically, he wanted to fashion a society which blended democratic institutions with oversight by Islamic scholars. The system includes a parliament and a president who are elected by universal suffrage. Several seats in the parliament are reserved for religious minorities, including the Jewish, Christian, and Zoroastrian communities. The governing process is monitored by a supreme cleric (the Faqih) and a body of clerics called the Council of Guardians.

The basic criticisms of the Iranian government revolve around the powers of these religious offices. Specifically, the Council of Guardians retains the power to disqualify candidates and parties for membership in the parliament. In addition, this Council may nullify laws passed by the parliament if they are deemed to be in conflict with Islamic Law (though it should be added that these Islamic offices were included in the constitution which was adopted by the original referendum back in the 1970s).

But several points should be considered regarding these criticisms. First, the Council of Guardians is often limited in its disqualifications by practical political considerations. Mohammed Khatami, the current president, is a reformer who is in constant conflict with the conservative clerics and who has defeated the clerical candidate for that office several times. The Council has never dared to declare him unfit for office, fearing the political repercussions of such a decision. In addition, the parliament has often been controlled by reformist forces who oppose the strident Islamism of the mullahs.

While this system is obviously not a prototype of Jeffersonian republicanism, it is nevertheless incorrect to call it a dictatorship. In fact, the Iranian government is probably the most representative and democratic government in the Muslim Middle East.

In addition, Western attacks on this system because of its nullification of candidates and its proscription of political parties expose us to charges of hypocrisy. After all, even after the vetting process, the current Iranian parliament contains members from approximately 10 different political parties.

It is thus only fair to analyze our own system by this same standard. For instance, how many parties are currently represented in our Congress? By my count, all but 2 of the 535 members of our House and Senate belong to either of the two dominant parties (along with one Socialist and one Independent). Our system unabashedly discriminates against third parties by a variety of backdoor mechanisms that are only slightly more democratic than the Iranian Council of Guardians. Ballot access laws and campaign finance laws are rigged to prevent the fair participation of third parties in our elections. Participation in presidential debates is largely restricted to the two major parties by the shadowy maneuverings of the Commission on Presidential Debates. In this past election, the Democratic Party also engaged in a range of legal shenanigans to keep Ralph Nader off the ballot in numerous states, in flagrant disregard for the democratic rights of his supporters.

Other western nations also fall far short of the stringent standard by which Iran is being judged. Just a few weeks ago, a court in Belgium completely outlawed the Vlaams Blok, a right-wing anti-immigration party, because it was "espousing discriminatory ideologies". The Blok had garnered the largest vote total of any party in the last parliamentary elections there. Is this behavior any more "democratic" than the Council of Guardians? And do these facts disqualify America and Belgium from membership in the democratic family of nations? Do they make us fair game for "regime change"?

The second point of criticism, the nullification of parliamentary laws by the Council of Guardians, also makes for an interesting comparison. Basically, Western critics charge that it is unacceptably dictatorial for a government to allow its laws to be voided by a committee of unelected scholars.

Unfortunately, our federal government has been degenerating into a system of judicial fiat for years. Our federal court system, which is comprised of unelected judges, is rife with judicial activism in which popular laws passed by elected representatives are thrown out…often by the most tenuous of constitutional rationales. Major aspects of our culture have been altered in an undemocratic fashion by this judiciary. Polls show that nearly 80% of the American voters, for instance, support prayer in public schools. Without Roe vs. Wade, probably 20 or 30 states would ban abortion. And it is hard to imagine that any elected body in America would ban Santa Claus decorations or displays of the Ten Commandments from public forums. Even more blatantly undemocratic, the federal judiciary has been nullifying a plethora of victorious popular referendums on topics such as recognizing English as the official language and withholding welfare from illegal aliens.

I should add here than I am not taking a side on any of these issues (nor am I singing the praises of untrammeled majoritarianism), but am merely demonstrating that the decisions of the judiciary in these instances are flagrantly against the will of the majority. Furthermore, these decisions have been enacted by bodies which are only marginally more "democratic" than the Iranian Council of Guardians.

The salient point here is that these criticisms of the Iranian system are not correct in labeling it as a hopeless dictatorship. It is a unique blend of democratic institutions monitored and fine-tuned by several bodies of religious scholars. This system was enacted in a free vote by the clear majority of the Iranian electorate. It is far from ideal, but our own system is also far from ideal.

Furthermore, administration attacks on Iran suffer from one additional dose of hypocrisy. The very same US government which is horrified by the Islamic Republic is simultaneously supporting a variety of nations in the Middle East which are far less democratic than Iran. Hosni Mubarak, who rules Egypt like an ancient pharaoh, is financed by billions of dollars of American foreign aid. American allies like the King of Morocco and the Emir of Kuwait are nearly absolute monarchs. The Bush administration even supports horrific despots like Islam Karimov, the potentate of Uzbekistan (whose secret police is as brutal as any in the world…including those of Saddam Hussein). How can we attack a semi-democracy like Iran while supporting violent and oppressive puppet-regimes across the breadth of the Middle East? This sort of double standard is well-known and much-discussed across the region, and it undermines the credibility of our foreign policy.

My goal is not to sugar-coat the Islamic Republic. There are numerous aspects of their governance, especially the judiciary and the police, which are undeniably authoritarian. But how many Americans are aware that women may vote and hold political office in Iran? How many Americans are aware that the president of Iran is a reformer who is intensely disliked by the conservative Islamist establishment? How many Americans are aware that religious minorities have guaranteed representation in the Iranian parliament, and that Judaism is far more tolerated there than in almost all of the Muslim nations which are currently subsidized as our "allies"? How many Americans are aware that there are Christian members of the Iranian parliament, while there are no Muslim members of the American Congress?

These are facts about which the American public must be made aware before they acquiesce to yet another disastrous "nation building" escapade in the Middle East.

If the neocons elect to attack Iran, they will be once again pouncing on a sovereign nation based on a blatant disregard for international law, our Constitution, and the beliefs of our Founding Fathers. Their attack will undoubtedly be preceded by a propaganda campaign based on lies, distortions, and fabricated intelligence (a process that will be enormously facilitated by the new "personnel changes" recently enacted at the CIA and the State Department).

While the Islamic Republic has its flaws, it is one of the few governments in the region which is at least partially representative of its people and which has the possibility of peacefully evolving into a more democratic system. Destroying it will not only blacken our reputation, it will also set back political liberalization in the Middle East for decades.