Early Friday morning, when the news revealed that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei pronounced the results of the recent Iranian election "fair," I thought to myself that saying it's "fair" just doesn't make it so. But that's an historical lesson that more than one leader has had to experience before it gets learned.
Khamenei might be forgiven his somewhat foolish announcement if one considers it in context. He's certainly not the first Iranian leader to announce things are just fine only to find himself overtaken by events on the ground. That kind of hubris brought down the Shah of Iran in 1978. The next year, a false belief that things were just fine would eventually turn out the seemingly moderate leadership who replaced the Shah. By the end of the year, Iran went from one dictator (the Shah) to another (the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini) and his system of constitutional theocracy. That's the system still in place In Iran today.
In my mind, the most instrumental lesson to be learned from the events of 30 years ago is that those changes didn't happen overnight. Over the course of 1979, a year best remembered in the United States for the dismal and demoralizing imprisonment of Americans in the U.S. embassy in Tehran, what had been a hopeful democratic movement was overtaken by a form of radical Islamic fundamentalism that has held sway in Iran ever since. Though we are loathe to recall, it was democracy that gave Iran it's peculiar political system. Sometimes, people make choices that are not good for them.
The fact is that current Supreme Leader Khamenei and his government, headed now by President Ahmadinejad, may have both the will and the power to violently shut down the people who have taken to the streets to protest the results of the election. Or Iranian citizens who feel the election was dishonest and unfair, a people perhaps numbering the millions, may prevail. It's really to soon to tell.
The Obama Administration has to try and work with whatever government is in place in Iran. Whether or not the Americans view the Iranian government as a legitimate one is an interesting question, but it won't necessarily change the facts on the ground. If anything, what the Iranian resistance most needs right now is to be seen as a truly domestic insurrection, not as an agent of western pressures. That's a task best fulfilled by brave Iranians willing to take a risk on behalf of their own freedom.
And so we wait.
PS: Those of you interested in the role of social networking sites in the Iranian protests might be interested in this NPR interview with Ethan Zuckerman, who studies that very issue at Harvard's Berkman Center of Internet and Society. Fascinating.
PPS: And then there is Juan Cole, a first-rate scholar of the Middle East. Read him to make sense of events on the ground in Iran.