Iran's religious hierarchy and the Iranian people who have lived under its precepts since 1979 have together come face-to-face with the inherent downside of democracy: For someone, things don't turn out as hoped.
Someone wins, and others lose.
Democracy's positive side, of course, is that it presents a way for a people to govern itself without resort to bloodshed. It is a system (as originally intended, anyway) by which the people, who are the true governors and the governed, select those who will carry out the people's will. Under ordinary circumstances — that is to say, when the election is known to have been conducted fairly and all parties agree that the votes were counted and tallied correctly — those who have agreed beforehand to accept the verdict of the people generally grouse a bit, then go on with their lives and accept the result. They can do so, because they believe they had a fair shot at it, and fairly lost. They can do so because they are confident that democracy will give them another chance.
In Iran, this week, a sizable portion of the populace does not now have that confidence. While it's possible that Iranian pollsters are so backward and primitive that there could be a 30-percentage-point error in their calculations, its not even remotely possible that poll officials arrived at a certifiable count just two hours after the polls closed. In the U.S., even a mayoral election in a middling small town can't be certified before breakfast the next morning.
No wonder, then, that all the opposition candidates are unanimous in their opinion that election fraud has been perpetrated in Iran on a large scale. These same leaders have charged that their observers (in the U.S., we call them poll watchers) were systematically excluded from polling places. People within the Iranian ministry that oversees elections have admitted, anonymously, to journalists that the election was fraudulent. Members of the Iranian national soccer team were seen wearing opposition green at an international match this week. The Iranian clergy is now openly divided over the election. And the list goes on.
Iran's current leadership, clearly worried by the continuing unrest, has attempted to stifle free speech, disrupt communications, bar the international press from reporting what everyone already knows. In short, they've employed all the time-tested techniques that modern despots regularly use when the quieter methods of holding a populace hostage are no longer sufficient to keep people in line. But without what the political scientists like to call "the consent of the governed," democracy (let alone what many now suspect is a sham democracy) cannot be made to work.
Remarkably — and likely a measure of just how pervasive the unrest really is — Iran's Ayatollah did a striking about face mid-week, suggesting that a "limited recount" might be in order ... with the proviso, of course, that opposition leaders stifle their supporters. More striking still, nobody was buying that line. People continue to march, to shout from their rooftops, to e-mail photos and videos of protest marches and militia violence, to tweet the news out of Iran, a sentence at a time. Now he's trying to blame Gordon Brown and the international press for his troubles.
Although his options diminish daily, the Ayatollah does have one have real ace in the hole: Rather than a recount (which no one would believe, given who's in possession of the ballots) he should call for a redo, with multinational supervision. (Hey ... how about the UN? They actually have some expertise in this area!).
That's right. Respect the Iranians on Tehran's Main Street enough to give them a do-over.
At this point, there's little to lose: Iran's international reputation (with all but, maybe, Vladimir Putin) currently weighs in the balance. The government's legitimacy is in serious question, whether it likes it or not. There is no way, through inaction or threat, to regain public confidence.
Conversely, there is much to be gained: Assuming the second election goes in the incumbent's favor, the world, having not been able to put up, must then shut up. And Iran's leadership would get credit for openess. It will have bent over backward to assure its own people, it's neighbors and the watching world that it is legitimate. Further, it would buy itself a stronger place at the negotiating table in talks with U.S. officials, should it care to participate. It's really a no-lose.
And if by some strange and unlikely turn of events, the election goes the other way? Not to worry: The clerics can take credit for having been willing to accept the possibility that the election had been highjacked, and can celebrate with its people in the correction of what could have been a national travesty (Allah be praised!) ... and then deal with the minor officials who, they will shortly discover, colluded with unscrupulous minor politicians to commit election fraud. The current president and others too big to fail could be quietly expatriated to ... well, how about Russia? (Putin seems to like them. Let him have them.)
No matter how you cut it, this is an eminently sensible and, politically, wise and pragmatic move. Unfortunately for those who rule Iran, it might be too late to take advantage of this option. In any case, it's one they're unlikely to take. The Ayatollah and his friends in the Iranian clergy and military have sold its populace the proposition that Iran's Supreme Leader speaks for God. This insistence on infallibility puts him in an unenviable position: If he blinks, God blinks. For those who go in for that kind of thinking, the one option that remains is to act to protect God's honor: crush dissent, jail the opposition, turn the militias loose, and "re-educate" the populace with show trials and public executions. We'll never know who really won, so everyone will lose.
If Iran's real governors (those with the guns) take that option, they'll plunge Iran into political darkness for another decade. But they'll also sow the seeds of their own defeat. Everyone will know. Everyone will remember. That small taste of freedom that slipped their grasp will grow bitter in their mouths. The blood of the Green Martyrs will inflame their hearts. Someday, inevitably, that broken dream will lift them up again.
The Iranian people are learning this week what we in the West too conveniently want to forget. Democracy has rarely been instituted without bloodletting. Those who prefer to rule outside democracy's consensual strictures are forever loath to accept them without a fight. Only those willing to die for the vote ever get it or keep it.