Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Can America Learn from Iran?

Originally published on WireTap.

It’s not often that we see the words “America” and “Iran” in the same sentence – at least in a context not relating to friction or war. For the first time in years, however, we have reason to put the names of these two countries in sentences that allude to cooperation and mutual respect. Why? Because former president Mohammad Khatami, the major proponent of reform in Iran, is running for a third term in his country’s elections later this June.

For most Americans, the Iranian political experience has been nothing but a series of failures after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. To say that Americans can learn from Iran therefore seems counterintuitive. However, a closer look at Khatami’s attempts at reform in Iran provides a lesson for all of us in the United States, particularly for the Obama Administration and its supporters.

To start with, the parallels between Khatami and the current U.S. president are rather striking: both men have experience living in foreign countries and mixing with other cultures, are considered progressive reformers within their country’s political spectrum, and entered their first presidential races as the underdog. Defying all expectations, both men won their elections and went on to lead their nations. At the start of Obama’s term, hopes are extremely high, just as they were at the beginning of Khatami’s.

However, it is here that Obama and his supporters must take heed of Khatami’s story.

A gradualist like Obama, Khatami wants to promote progressive change without overthrowing the system his country is founded on. During his earlier terms in office, he advocated democracy, freedom of expression, civil society and the greater inclusion of Iranian citizens in the political decision-making process – but all without overstepping boundaries that he believed would cause a backlash in the conservative circles that controlled most of the country. If he offended too many conservatives on too many issues, he could have easily been removed from power, which would have undermined the whole reform project he had in mind for Iran.

His followers, however, wanted immediate change. What Khatami saw as calculated political moves, much of his supporting base saw as timidity and compromise on the ideals of freedom and reform. After a number of Khatami’s reforms were undermined by conservative hardliners, many of these supporters became disillusioned with him. Because of this, they did not come out to vote in the subsequent elections, allowing a conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to come into power.

What Obama and his supporters must take from this story is that change takes time. Sometimes a leader has to balance between that and stability to ensure that change does take place. Iranians learned this the hard way, and after four years of conservative leadership, they are now struggling to get the very same man they had thrown aside back into the center of power.

Can America learn from Iran instead of repeating its mistake, so that the foundation it is setting for progressive change does not fizzle out within a generation? And, if elected, will Khatami be able to strike a more effective balance between continuity and reform? If the answer is “yes,” both American and Iran can show the world that change, anywhere, is possible.

8 comments:

Dubman01 said...

Interesting article. I think the opposition Khatami faced and, in many cases, overcame make Obama's presidency look like a walk in the park. Obama has 60% of the government and 70% of the public behind him. Not only did Khatami face overwhelming opposition, he was inferior in his powers compared with Ali Khamenei, the "Supreme Leader of Iran", who has ensured that social change be as impossible as possible, no pun intended. Despite this, Khatami was able to introduce sweeping reforms that had Iran moving towards industrialization and conciliation with former enemies. One thing Obama can learn from this is that he's in an infinitely better position to lead and, therefore, has no excuse to fail in executing his agenda. If Obama fails in his effort to bring "change" he could very well be remembered as a weak leader who squandered the greatest opportunity in the history of politics.

Khatami was probably the best statesman Iran could have hoped for. I really think the people of Iran made a mistake by electing Ahmadinejad in 2005. Iran has since fallen deeper into the crack of isolation from the rest of the world and this has only hurt the people of Iran.

Having said that, Iran seems to be making gradual social progress regardless, although the country is nowhere near where it was in the early 1950s, before the US-British Coup d'etat codenamed "Ajax" by the CIA which essentially destroyed the first modern democracy in the Middle East. But US "promotion" (LOL) of democracy in the Mid East is a hot topic in itself.

-Basil

Richard le Wacky. said...

I think a better parallel between Khatami and America was the experience the U.S. had with Bill Clinton. Clinton was a gradualist, too, but at the end of eight years (and despite his personal popularity) a tiny majority of Americans (specifically, five members of the Supreme Court) chose instead a much more radical conservative. Gore's loss in 2000 - to be more precise, his inability to create a clear majority - was based as much in liberal fatigue as it was in any sort of conservative resurgence. I think a very similar sort of thing happened in Iran, where reformers, hoping for rapid and sweeping change, instead got the tiny movements Khatami offered. At the end of his eight years, without sweeping change, they boycotted the elections and instead got Iran's own version of George W. Bush, Mohammed Ahmadinejad. I'm pretty confident that Khatami will succeed in the coming elections, if he can mobilize a significant turnout and if that voting isn't significantly suppressed by the Iranian authorities.

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