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Why die for X or Y? 
My first lesson in democracy

By Nasser Farahbakhsh
January 21, 2004

I arrived in the States in spring of 1976, the bicentennial year. Jubilations and celebrations commemorating the United States' Independence Day were, however, overshadowed by the fog (and sands) of the Watergate scandal. That year was also a presidential election year in this country. Republican Jerald Ford, the un-elected president who pardoned Richard Nixon, was running as the incumbent who would maintain the status quo.

The main challenger, Governor Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer turned politician, was the Democratic Party's nominee, running on a platform of "government reorganization". Senator Eugene McCarthy, a prominent opponent of the Vietnam war, who promised "to end the nuclear arms race", advocated "an end to wasteful, inflationary spending in the automobile industry and in military and space program", and opposed "spying, wiretapping, bugging, and improper disclosure of personal records" as threats to the Bill of Rights, ran as an Independent.

As a foreign graduate student, on an F-1 visa, I was a self-proclaimed and unofficial observer of the election process in the most powerful democracy in the world. I had never voted in my life. I had only "participated" once in an election in Iran. While in college, my friends and I were hanging out some evenings in Kaakh-e Javaanaan, a government-sponsored youth club in Tehran.

On the night before one of the parliamentary elections held in the pre-revolution Iran, one of the club's administrators approached many of us and asked if we were willing to go to the headquarter of the Rastaakheez (Resurrection) Party and help the party officials prepare for the next day election. Many acquiesced.

In the headquarter building, we were dispersed in several conference rooms, in which others sitting around large tables, were busy filling election ballot papers. I was handed a stack. Every ballot form had the name and signature (or finger print) of a registered voter, but the rest was blank. I was given a list and instructed to fill the blank column with names of the party's candidates.

I was stunned. Before I could come to grip with the situation I was in, the conference room door opened. It was a friend of mine yelling, "We are all leaving." I was rescued. However, that experience formed my ever-lasting view of the election process in Iran, to the degree that I had difficulty accepting Khatami was indeed an "unintended" winner of the 1997 presidential election. Was that a new Iran?

These days, I read and hear a lot about upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Iran. While the outcome of these elections, and their effects on the future of Iran, should be the matter of intense discussions, the main question being debated appears to be whether Iranian voters will participate in these elections, or boycott them.

In response to the latter question, the conspiracy theorists argue that the electoral participation in Iran is irrelevant. The proponents of boycott, however, contend that the regime's legitimacy depends on voters' participation. Others provide conditional responses.

The conspiracy theorists underline failure of the 2nd-of-Khordad reformers in implementing their agenda as a proof of impending defeat of any reform movement operating in the environment imposed by the Islamic Constitution.

They claim that reformers were just a façade (happy face) shown by the totalitarians to the Iranian people and the rest of the world, for the obvious goal of winning political currency. They argue that even if reformers win the majority of seats in the next parliamentary election, and as unlikely as it appears at this point of time, can extend that further and win the upcoming presidential election next year, they will not be in any stronger position than they have been during the Khatami administration, and their own control of the Sixth Majlis (Hoghe-ie mehr bedaan mohr o neshaan ast ke bood).

The conspiracy theorists suggest that disqualification of reformers by the Guardian Council, and their protest and sit-in in the Majlis, is just a ploy to incite and mobilize the disenfranchised voters. They predict, however, that in the absence of voters' participation, hardliners will generate huge number of votes (Rastaakheez style) in favor of their candidates. To them, the vote is already cast.

The rejectionists, however, argue that Iranian voters have lost their faith in the reform movement, and are looking for a genuine alternative to the current regime. The majority who voted twice for Khatami, and sent reformers en masse to Majlis, no longer heeds their calls. In its collective wisdom the majority has seen through the smoke screen, and has decided it wants no part of it.

They also stress that foreign powers are tired of dealing with parallel governments in Tehran. Officials in the U.S. and E.U. prefer negotiating with the real power brokers in Iran, as was clearly demonstrated during the recent nuclear energy standoff. The rise of Hassan Rohani as de facto foreign minister of Iran, at the expense of Kharrazi, and even Khatami, is taken as an indication of the pressure being exerted on Iran to rid herself of this dualism.

They insist that a large turnout, irrespective of which faction the winners belong to, will only enhance the regime's veneer of legitimacy. They claim that Iran's "democracy" has been her most effective shield against the neo-cons' onslaught. A shield, they contend, the ruling clique would like to keep wearing on, as long as possible. The rejectionists consider a boycott of the upcoming parliamentary election a vote of no confidence for the current government, a referendum of some sort.

To their credit, conspiracy theorists and rejectionists, as well as many other political ivory tower residents, make a sincere effort to validate their observations vis-à-vis the state of affairs in our birthplace. However, while they have mastered the art of diagnosis, they are rather weak on the etiology. They refuse to ask and answer a straightforward question, Why three successive mass uprisings in Iran in the last 100 years, the Constitutional Revolution, Nationalization of Oil, and Islamic Revolution, have failed to produce a democratic system of government?

In the absence of a clear answer, shouldn't we ask, Why do we expect Iranians to sacrifice their lives, compromise well being of their loved ones, and destroy their country's infrastructure, in order to replace X with Y?

I suggest we are underestimating Iranians innate knowledge of the calculus. They know very well that both X and Y are mere "parameters". Either one can be used as a "variable" or a "function", or as another parameter, such as a "coefficient". They recognize that participating in elections is the ultimate form of non-violent struggle for social change, even when choices are limited.

Iranian geometry strictly follows the Euclidean postulate, "given a straight line and any point not on it, there exists one and only one straight line that passes through this point and never intersects the first line, no matter how far they are extended." In the meantime, Riemann's and Lobachevsky's non-Euclidean geometries, and other intellectual and abstract exercises, have to wait.

On the night of the 1976 election in the U.S., I was sitting in front of the TV following the news. When a young woman stepped out of the polling station, the local TV reporter asked her, "May I ask you whom you voted for?"

She replied, "I am for McCarthy. I hate Ford. I voted for Carter."

I yelled, "What?!"

My friend and roommate, an astute student of American politics, frowned and admonishingly said, "It's obvious. She knows McCarthy has no chance of winning. So, she voted for the lesser of two evils."

More than 27 years later, I still remember that faithful night and what I learned.

I also believe that Iran's sophisticated electorate, after voting in quite a few elections of their own, know very well that in the next elections, participating or not, they are choosing between Iranian Fords and Carters. Thanks to the revolutionaries, Iranian McCarthy is not running. That person is either dead, in jail, or in exile.

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