June 25, 2013

Election of new Iranian President brings new opportunities

    Tuesday, June 25, 2013   No comments

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*
 If stability in the Middle East is important for the U.S. national security, and if Iran is a major force in the region, it follows that the U.S. administration ought to diplomatically engage Iran to stabilize the region and decrease the tension that threatens world peace and security. On June 15, a new Iranian president, was elected. Reacting to this news, the White House released a statement saying in part that, “[y]esterday’s election took place against the backdrop of a lack of transparency, censorship of the media, Internet, and text messages, and an intimidating security environment that limited freedom of expression and assembly.  However, despite these government obstacles and limitations, the Iranian people were determined to act to shape their future.” 

Such a backhanded compliment is counterproductive. It insults the Iranian people by telling them that their democracy is incomplete, imperfect, and not worthy of praise. It tells the new president that he lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the U.S. leaders. The statement reflects a sense of hubris, double standard, and destructiveness. The idea that because the Iranian democracy gives special status to those who show commitment to Islamic ideals, privileges Ja`fari Shi’a over other Muslims, and integrates the institution of the regency of the jurisprudent into the governing system, makes Iranian democracy perpetually inferior lacks proper insight of the definition and evolution of American democracy.

First, the Administration’s statement implicit suggestion that Iranian democracy is inferior to American democracy is factually inaccurate. It took American democracy nearly 200 years before non-White male landowners were able to have some of the most fundamental rights. And even today, an estimated 20 million American naturalized citizens are constitutionally barred from running for the office of the president. Despite reforms over the past decades, more than 6 million Americans are disenfranchised by state laws barring ex-prisoners (who paid their due to society for previous offenses, are barred from voting. These state laws have had a disproportionate impact on people of color--7.7 percent of all African Americans, or one in every 13, have lost the right to vote because of state bans. When considering societal prejudices and financial burdens needed to compete for elected offices, the number of disenfranchised Americans becomes staggering.

Second, U.S. administrations have rarely supported genuine democratic regimes in that part of the world. For instance, in 1953, the U.S. administration and the UK government overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran then headed by Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, replacing him with the brutal regime of the Shah. Today, the U.S. closest allies, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are far from being model democracies. In Saudi Arabia, not only people have no political rights, but half the population (Saudi women) lack basic rights that will enable them to undertake basic functions such as driving a car to work. Yet, the U.S. administration does not even nudge these allies to offer their societies these basic rights.

Third, as the U.S. Constitution reminds us, democracy is a journey towards a more perfect goal. American democracy was not perfect when it was born and it is not perfect today. It took 27 amendments to the Constitution to take American democracy to a place where more Americans feel represented and included. But there are many more people still left out. That ought to be humbling, not a cause for hubris.

Fourth, presidential elections do not bring in a savior. Elections are about debating ideas, visions, and national priorities. When a candidate wins and another loses, a nation learns about its values, priorities, and hopes. For example, when President Obama won a second term, not everyone expects him to change the country. In fact, the elections changed him. For instance, as a candidate, Obama advocated for dialogue with Iran and ending military adventures in the Middle East--views that brought harsh criticism from his Democratic colleagues like Hillary Clinton. He dismissed their criticism by describing them as “Bushlite” liberals. As President on the other hand, he actualized Bushlite policies. That change indicates that elections transform both, winners and losers. 

Elections change a country through its various governing bodies and civil society institutions to accommodate the shift in priorities and values. For example, the last general elections has transformed the Republican Party as well. The post 2012 elections Republican Party is not the same one before the elections. Republican leaders are developing strategies to become more inclusive and their elected officials are supporting legislations that they had traditionally rejected. Even the Supreme Court, an institution that is staffed by unelected appointees, could be influenced by the public mood reflected in elections’ results.

Similarly, the election of Rouhani will force other branches of the Iranian government to recalibrate. Rouhani’s election allows the Iranian leaders to feel the pulse of the Iranian public and develop policies (foreign and domestic) that reflect the people’s preferences. These facts suggest that the U.S. and Iran do have an opportunity in the next four years to normalize relations to the extent possible and to work together to stabilize a region that is now on the brink of sectarian war. Leaders from both countries need to develop the political will to act for the common good and abandon the rhetoric that divides.

* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.


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