Sorry, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel. Just because Iran holds elections doesn’t mean that its government represents the people.
- By Jeffrey GedminJeffrey Gedmin is President and CEO of the Legatum Institute
In November 1990 Guatemalans went to the polls, determining that for the first time in decades the transition of power from one elected civilian government to another would take place at the beginning of the new year. I was an election observer. I recall being flown aboard a small, rickety propeller plane into a mountain village where we landed on a grassy field. A short car ride later we found ourselves at a polling station in breathtaking beauty. What really took your breath away, though, were the hundreds of Mayan farmers (Mayans represented at least half of Guatemala’s nine million population at the time) lined up single file in the warm sun, waiting for hours to cast their vote.
Elections matter. That’s why it raised eyebrows when Secretary of State John Kerry recently said that Iran has "a government that was elected" and Chuck Hagel, in his confirmation hearings for Secretary of Defense, similarly contended that Iranians have an "elected legitimate government." Elections alone don’t make for democracy, but there are no democracies without elections and governments of all stripes seem to crave the legitimacy that flows from the ballot box.
Francis Fukuyama has wisely observed that people often care as much about dignity and honor as they do about things like territory or food. Not long before his death in 2011, Christopher Hitchens recounted in Slate the story of a friend meeting an Arab acquaintance for dinner who became apoplectic when he discovered that Albanians had enjoyed reasonably fair and free elections. "What does that make us? Are we peasants? Children?"
Yes, Iran has elected government. But as John Kerry and Chuck Hagel surely know, not all elections are created equal.
Communist East Germany, officially known as the German Democratic Republic, had elections that included four different political parties that campaigned alongside the SED, the Socialist Unity Party that actually ran the country. North Korea has a multi-party system today. Cuba had its most recent elections last month — though the same ruler has remained in power for 55 years running. There’s a body of academic literature on how elections work in authoritarian countries. In the book Everyday Stalinism by University of Chicago Professor Sheila Fitzpatrick, one finds the sentence, "During the Soviet elections of 1929, conducted under the slogan of class war, more people were deprived of the vote than ever before." Yes, Stalin actually held elections.
How do elections work in Iran? For starters, not very well. Iran’s head of intelligence recently acknowledged that his services are currently conducting "heavy monitoring" of the populace in advance of the country’s Presidential elections scheduled for June. In the country’s last elections on June 12, 2009, nation-wide protests erupted amid wide-spread allegations of fraud. The so-called Green Movement was born. Its slogan was simple: "Where is my vote?"
The Iranian government had sensed trouble back then as well. In the run-up to the 2009 election authorities blocked access to Facebook. They jammed international broadcasters like the BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Voice of America. They slowed down internet access and on election day interrupted mobile phone communications.
The Green Movement as such didn’t last very long. After the election, hundreds of protestors and civic leaders across the country were imprisoned. Two prominent Iranian opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both candidates in the 2009 election, were harassed and eventually placed under house arrest. Iranian Nobel peace prize laureate Shirin Ebadi was forced into exile.
What about this time? As in the past, the Supreme Leader’s Guardian Council, a group of 12 theologians, will vet candidates for the election. The process will exclude "reformists, liberals, individuals who are not in line with the Islamic establishment, and women," says Golnaz Esfandiari, the Iranian human rights reporter and curator of the blog Persian Letters. At the same time, the government appears to be pursuing a deliberate strategy aimed at ratcheting up the climate of intimidation and fear, according to Denise Ajiri, another Iranian journalist and founder of Iran Election Watch, a site covering the upcoming presidential election. Musavi’s two daughters were arrested last month in Teheran. At least 17 journalists have been jailed in the last six weeks.
I recall meeting in Europe in summer 2010 the brother of an Iranian journalist friend, a Teheran-based engineer who described himself to me as having been previously thoroughly apolitical — or at least until the disputed 2009 elections and the ensuing wave of repression. He told me that he and his friends had been left feeling furious and humiliated by government actions. In 1990 in the Guatemalan hills when I asked a poor farmer through an interpreter why he was waiting hours in line to vote, he responded simply, "How else do I get to have my voice heard?"
In a 2002 essay in Journal of Democracy, Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way sought to distinguish between democratic and authoritarian approaches to elections. According to the authors, democracies must have: 1) executives and legislatures selected through open, fair and free elections; 2) virtually all adults permitted to vote; 3) political rights and civil liberties, including freedom of press and freedom to criticize the government without fear of reprisal; and 4) elected authorities who are not subject to control by the military or clerical leaders.
When John Kerry and Chuck Hagel talk about elections and legitimate government in Iran, what exactly do they have in mind?
Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.
A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.
Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C.| The Cable |
Yochi Dreazen is a Managing Editor for News at Foreign Policy. He is also writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security. His book about military suicide was published by Random House's Crown division in 2014.
Prior to joining Foreign Policy, Dreazen was a contributing editor at the Atlantic and the senior national security correspondent for National Journal. He began his career at the Wall Street Journal and spent 11 years at the newspaper, most recently as its military correspondent. He was born in Chicago, and later attended the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn, he edited the award-winning daily campus newspaper and graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1999 with degrees in History and English. He was hired by the Wall Street Journal immediately after graduation. Dreazen arrived in Iraq in April 2003 with the Fourth Infantry Division, and spent the next two years living in Baghdad as the Wall Street Journal's main Iraq correspondent.
Dreazen has made more than 12 lengthy trips to Iraq and Afghanistan and has spent a total of nearly four years on the ground in the two countries, mostly doing front-line combat embeds. He has reported from more than 20 countries, including Pakistan, Russia, China, Israel, Japan, Turkey, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia.
In 2010, Dreazen received the Military Reporters & Editors association’s top award for domestic military reporting in a large publication for a series of articles about military suicide and the psychological traumas impacting veterans of the two long wars. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Smithsonian, Tablet and the New Republic and he appears regularly on TV and radio programs such as NPR's Diane Rehm Show and PBS' Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Dreazen gives frequent lectures about journalism, the wars and current events to both civilian and military audiences.
Dreazen lives in Washington with his wife, Annie Rosenzweig Dreazen, and their beloved Golden Retriever, Charlie.| The Cable |
Hagel’s one-word answer on shutdown; the al-Qaida fighter busted from Abu Ghraib now in Syria; Afghan’s next president could be a guy who brought al-Qaida to town; Hagel turns 67; and a bit more.Gordon Lubold
Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children.| Situation Report |