Protests of the recent election results in Iran continue and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leader of the clerical wing of Iran's government (and probably the true source of political power in Iran) has promised that they will be forcibly suppressed. Because Iran is a essentially a totalitarian police state, we will never know whether or not President Ahmadinejad was indeed popularly re-elected. However, as discussed last week on Meet the Press by Vice President Biden, there are reasons to be skeptical of the result. Ahmadinejad was apparently declared the winner before voting was completed. The voting was reported as percentages of blocks of millions of votes, rather than a province-by-province tally as has been the case in previous elections in Iran. Furthermore, the percentages garnered by Ahmadinejad did not change regardless whether the bloc was rural, where Ahmadinejad enjoys broad popular support, or urban, where opposition candidate Mousavi is popular (and including, apparently, Mousavi's home town). The Iranian government's response to the protests - sharp police crackdown and blackouts of cell phone service and internet access - also raises suspicions about the veracity of the election results. It is unlikely that the issue will be resolved to satisfaction as the person ultimately responsible for investigating allegations of fraud is the same person who certified the results initially and who has backed Ahmadinejad from the beginning - Ayatollah Khamenei.
In January 2005, I wrote an essay discussing similar, peaceful, protests of election results in Ukraine (posted on this blog on April 26, 2008: http://freemarkets-freeminds-freesociety.blogspot.com/2008/04/orange-revolution.html). The comparisons and contrasts between the current protests in Iran and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine illustrate key points about the origins of liberty.
First, democracy is no guarantor of liberty. Not only are elections corruptible, as the current situation in Iran attests, but they can also serve as vehicle for consolidation of government power at the expense of liberty. It should not be forgotten that, although the National Socialist party never achieved a majority in the Reichstag, it did achieve a plurality, through democratic means, that allowed it to form a coalition government with Adolph Hitler as Chancellor. This ended the Wiemar Republic and established the most brutal police state the world has ever known. In Putin's Russia and Chavez' Venezuela, popularly elected Presidents have governed as virtual autocrats. Furthermore, although majority rule is an important principle in liberal democracy, for a society to be truly free, the rights of the minority must be respected and protected. In other words, the will of the majority has limits. Even if the official results of the recent elections in Iran are accurate, the crackdown on protest and dissent demonstrates that Iran has a long way to go to become a free society. The right of a political minority to peaceably assemble and dissent is a critical component of liberal democracy. Ukraine took an important step toward liberal democracy when it allowed Victor Yushchenko's supporters to protest the election results. Unfortunately, Iran seems committed to not taking this step.
Secondly, as important as free, fair, and transparent elections are to liberal democracies, civil institutions that protect minority and individual rights are more important. In the United States, this is accomplished by a written Constitution that limits the power of government and the checks and balances between the three branches of federal government, the federal government and state governments, and the public and private sectors. A key component of this that we in the U.S. take for granted is an independent and impartial judiciary. In Ukraine's Orange Revolution, the court, appointed by the ruling party that had ostensibly beaten Yushchenko's opposition in the election, asserted its independence and established a principle of judicial review when it discarded the fraudulent election results and ordered a re-vote. In Iran, no such independent review of the election results exists.
Finally, a free society must respect the individual property rights of its citizens and private ownership. In his thought-provoking book, The Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria examines the relationship between capital and liberty. Governments that rely on their citizens to produce wealth, in the end are fertile ground for liberal democracy because a legal framework protecting private ownership and individual rights will emerge to promote the economic growth on which the government depends. Although an oil rich state, Iran has a dynamic, non-oil, economy and a per capita income (in 2003-4) of somewhere between $5,000-$6,000 USD; the level of wealth production Zakaria suggests could provide fertile ground for liberal democracy. Iran, once a cradle of civilization, still has the potential to join the 21st century as a vibrant liberal democracy, but only if those other conditions are met. Only then will elections be fair and transparent and only then will the Iranian government rule with the consent of the governed. Elections are not the starting point of liberty, but rather the endpoint. The reward of a free society ready to govern itself.
It seems this is not the moment for the birth of Iranian liberty. But the response to the suspicious election results shows that Iranians are ready and the seeds of their ultimate liberty are being planted today. Iran's nuclear program has been a concern to the U.S. because Iran has been, essentially, a rogue-terrorist state. Iran's transformation into a liberal democracy that is a valued member of the community of nations will neutralize such a threat. The United States needs to be prepared to extend an open hand not to Ahmadinejad, but to the Iranian people who have demonstrated the same yearning for freedom that we have as Americans. Our policies must show us to be friends of the Iranian people, even when we are opposed to the Iranian government. The time may not be now, but the time is coming when the Iranian people will seize control of their own destiny.