There is no absolute yardstick on how to behave in these impossible circumstances, so people must judge every election on its merits. Since 85 percent of Iranian voters decided that it was worth taking part in the last election, their decision must be respected. Although their options were limited, many of them had enough confidence that the reformist candidate would not only get elected, but also make life a little better. This is also why 70 percent voted for Mohammed Khatami, the reformist president, in 1997.
Khatami, too, had good ideas about press freedom, individual rights and democratic reforms. They were mostly quashed by the clerics who held ultimate power. It probably did not help that the Bush administration gave up on Khatami. Like some neo-cons today, Bush’s foreign policy advisers saw no difference between reformists and hardliners. This undermined Khatami’s authority even further.
Mousavi was regarded by many Iranians as a second chance. Unfortunately, Khamenei thought so, too, and made sure that Ahmadinejad held onto his presidency. This was a sickening blow to all Iranians who crave the dignity of democratic politics. But it does not mean that they were wrong or naive to try.
Mousavi’s campaign and its aftermath showed clearly that those who professed to see no difference between the candidates, except in style and presentation, were wrong: Even if the election was rigged, the voices of opposition to clerical authoritarianism were heard. The quiet dignity of the protests that followed did more for Iran’s standing in the world than any amount of belligerent posturing by a populist president.
There may have been a more important consequence. The election, the fraud and the violent crackdown on the subsequent protests revealed and clearly widened deep rifts inside the regime. This is the best reason why in most cases it is best to contest elections, even in unpromising circumstances. They expose cracks in the wall of dictatorial power.
Ahmadinejad won the election, but the regime is weakened as a result. Terror can prolong the agony, but in the end an illegitimate regime is doomed.
To persist in the belief that reformists and hardliners are just masks of the same enemy and to take pleasure in the victory of the latter is not merely cynical, but is an added insult to a people that has already been humiliated enough.
Ian Buruma is a professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College.
COPYRIGHT: PROJECT SYNDICATE