Too Many Tea Leaves on Iran

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I think Andrew Sullivan and Joe Klein are getting a little carried away with election season in Iran. While I share their enthusiasm for displays of democracy and free speech, I think there are a few things of note worth reminding them:

* Presidential debates in Iran, even contentious ones, are not a new occurrence. They've practically gone on since the very beginning of the revolution.

* Mahmoud Ahmadinejad going at it with Hashemi Rafsanjani is not groundbreaking. Rafsanjani lost to him in 2005, and the two men hate each other (they supposedly can't stand to even be in the same room). Rafsanjani is not of the conservative faction that Ahmadinejad comes from, as Klein mistakenly assumes.

* Large public demonstrations in support of reformers are also not a groundbreaking occurrence in Iran. It was believed in 2005 that Rafsanjani enjoyed reformist support, especially from young voters, but the turnout in the end was poor. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, much like Rafsanjani in 2005, remains a virtual unknown to Iranian youth, or worse, is associated too much with the older, revolutionary regime (Mousavi was of course prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war). He will rely heavily - as we saw at a recent campaign rally - on the mass appeal of former President Mohammad Khatami to mobilize young voters on his behalf.

* This is not a case of "Red Iran" vs "Blue Iran," as Andrew Sullivan seems convinced of. While Mousavi would no question be a better president for the average Iranian, we mustn't assume that he is akin to Khatami or the reformist movement he spearheaded in '97. Mousavi is a right-wing pragmatist, and his positions thus far have been more rational than radical. Will he challenge the state security apparatus? Will he appoint genuine reformers to positions of importance, and challenge the entrenched political system in the face of arrest, or perhaps even assassination? All of these things, Mohammad Khatami did. It remains to be seen if Mousavi would truly follow in his footsteps. As it stands now, the election is more like "red Iran" vs. "Redder Iran."

* Unless there is substantive and systemic reform of elections in Iran, the presidency - no matter how well-intentioned - can always be rendered toothless. Khatami was eventually undone by a hardline Majlis (parliament), and the balloting process is only more rigid and exclusive today.

Don't misunderstand me, I think Iranians deserve better than Ahmadinejad, and Mousavi would certainly be an upgrade. But it remains to be seen if a change in the presidential office will drastically improve the lives of Iranians, and moreover, the regional interests of the United States.

UPDATE: Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for the link love.

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