Ten days ago, in one of southern Tehran’s poor neighborhoods, I interviewed some voters in line to cast ballots for Iran’s next president. After a while, when an official at the polling station asked who I thought would win, I repeated the conventional media
"It will never happen," he replied flatly. "I promise you."
During the interviews, the name Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had often come up -- in response to the question "Who will you vote for?" -- with several people making comments along the lines of "he has helped us." At the time, I chalked it up to local loyalty to the city’s mayor.
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a political powerhouse in Iran for a quarter-century and one of the country’s richest men, turned off voters in impoverished neighborhoods like Saleh-Abad. His elitism and well-known nepotism was a glaring contrast to Ahmadinejad’s populist appeal.
Unfortunately, Ahmadinejad has risen to power as a theocratic leader aligned with fundamentalist vigilante forces. It’s an old story in many societies, with a demagogue tapping into justified grievances against economic injustice to rise to power.
In Iran, it’s true, the president is largely subservient to the clerical Guardian Council and the hardline Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, known as "Leader." Yet since 1997, Iran’s presidency has been an important foothold for reformers. Now that foothold is gone. In a country that has seen slow but significant progress in social freedoms and human rights during recent years, the runoff election results last Friday -- catapulting the odious Ahmadinejad to the president’s office -- is a blow to freedom of speech, women’s rights and a range of possibilities for protecting civil liberties.
All this surely is good news for Washington’s top officials gunning for a confrontation with Iran. A few weeks ago they could not have been pleased with the surge of U.S. media coverage hyping Rafsanjani as a "moderate." That kind of talk must have been worrisome for war-planners in Washington.
Now the Tehran-Washington axis of demagogues is more dangerous than ever. They’re very likely to feed off each other, satisfying rabid domestic constituencies and stoking international tensions. Yet as usual, despite the rhetoric of government leaders, most people want peace.
It was late morning when I visited the Saleh-Abad neighborhood during the first round of the elections, with the humid heat already uncomfortable. As I was leaving a courtyard outside a mosque where people were voting, an old man approached me and held out a clear glass cup filled with water. The water was remarkably cold. A tiny gesture? Sure. Just a hokey story? Maybe. But the warmth that I experienced as an American, talking with hundreds of citizens at random in Tehran, makes me believe that most Iranian people -- while understandably quite distrustful of the U.S. government -- want good relations with the United States.
For now anyway, Iranians appear to be stuck with a government that’s likely to adopt more hardline policies. And in the short term, there’s probably very little they can do about it.
In the United States, we have a lot more democratic avenues available. Meanwhile, officials in Washington are steadily upping the rhetorical ante and moving towards a military confrontation with Iran. So far, we’re doing very little to restraint them. What’s our excuse?
Norman Solomon’s new book War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death has just become available. The book’s first chapter is posted at: WarMadeEasy.com