Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, June 19, 2009

Don't hold on to outdated assumptions

The New York Times published an opinion piece by a "student in Iran who, for reasons of safety, did not want to be identified by his full name."

The writer seeks to disabuse us of the "truths" we learned about Iran in the past. It is certainly addressed to me.

A Different Iranian Revolution
WE look over this wall of marching people to see what our friends in the United States are saying about us... To our great dismay, what we find is that in important sectors of the American press a disturbing counternarrative is emerging: That perhaps this election wasn’t a fraud after all. That the United States shouldn’t rush in with complaints of democracy denied, and that perhaps Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the president the Iranian people truly want (and, by extension, deserve).

Do not believe it. Those so-called experts warning Americans to be leery of claims of fraud by the opposition are basing their arguments on an outdated understanding of Iran that has little to do with the reality of what we here are experiencing during these singular days...

[T]he United States seems able to view our country only through anxieties left over from the 1979 revolution. In the “how did we lose Iran?” assessments after the overthrow of the shah, many American intelligence agents and policy makers decided that their great mistake was to spend too much time canoodling with the royal family and intellectual elites of the capital. Commentators now are worried that, by siding with the opposition today, the United States will once again fall into the trap of backing the losing side.

But the fact is, Tehran is not the Iranian anomaly it was 30 years ago. It has become more like the rest of the country...

And, of course, Iran in 2009... is not the same as Iran in 1979. Just as Tehran’s neighborhoods cannot be fixed in time, the cultural lives of Iranians have greatly changed in the past 30 years. The postrevolutionary period has seen the expansion of education, the entry of women into the work force in large numbers, and changing patterns of marriage and even of divorce...

Let’s also forget the polls, carried out in May by Terror Free Tomorrow: The Center for Public Opinion, that have been making the rounds this past week, with numbers that showed Mr. Ahmadinejad well ahead in the election, even in Mr. Moussavi’s hometown, Tabriz. Maybe last month Mr. Ahmadinejad was indeed on his way to victory. But then came the debates...

Such a major shift has happened before. A month before the 1997 elections, the establishment candidate, Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri, was trouncing his opponents in surveys. Then, a week before the vote, the tide changed, bringing to power a reformer, Mohammad Khatami.

The reason for this fluidity in voter preference is simple. Iran has no real political parties that can command a fixed number of predictable votes. With elections driven primarily by personality politics, Iranians are always swing voters...

Anything is possible because very little in politics or social life has been made systematic. We used to joke that if you leave Tehran for three months you’ll come back to a new city...


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