When in Iran

Legitimacy, the Rule of Law, and Authority in Iran

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Initial student protests in Babol. It's still peaceful at this point.

We should start out with a straightforward question: where do governments gain their legitimacy? From the people? From God? From themselves?

The question of authority and legitimacy is an important one in contemporary issues, but it is often overlooked.

In Plato's Crito, Socrates famously asserts that it would not be alright for him to flee from the death sentence handed down from the Athenian jury even though the particular sentence was clearly unjust. Socrates states that since Athens has "given you birth, nurtured you, educated you; we have given you and all other citizens a share of all the good things we could... You must either persuade [the city] or obey its orders, and endure in silence whatever it instructs you to endure."

So lets see if these principles apply to Iran.

First off, does Iran reasonably provide its citizens with basic opportunities, education, and "good things"? Obviously, it is up for debate, but I do believe that the government of Iran, at it's core, does care for the general well being of it's people. It provides universal education for it students -- even at the university level -- and it subsidizes basic necessities like bread and gasoline. The students you see demonstrating at the University of Tehran, Amir Kabir University or Sharif University all have their tuition paid by the state and other student fees subsidized, including dormitories and food. So I think comparing Iran, for example, to a dictatorship like Saddam's Iraq in which large portions of it's citizens remained without basic necessities not an appropriate comparison.

So when Mir-Hossein Mousavi accepted the legitimacy of the voting process by submitting his name to the Guardian Council, he accepted this much at least. Subsequently, he followed the rules and encouraged participation for the presidential election within the confines of the rules which had been set up; he held mass rallies, speeches, and distributed campaign literature in a lawful and organized manner.

Once the results had been announced, though, Mousavi immediately claimed fraud. Which is fine; that is obviously a valid concern.

However, Mousavi refused to mediate through the Guardian Council and lawful means and instead encouraged people to demonstrate and show civil disobedience. I think what many Iranians found disturbing was: does Mousavi only accept the system only up until the point he disagrees with it?

To turn it around though, from the opposition and Mousavi's point of view, people didn't accept the judgment of the Guardian Council because they fundamentally didn't believe in the system itself. They didn't trust the Guardian Council because they thought the Guardian Council and it's affiliates were the ones who carried out the fraud or were at least complacent in it. They wanted to set their own rules for how their complaints were to be addressed. They demanded a referendum, refused to meet with government bodies, and some (not all) perpetuated violence in the streets. I don't think the movement meant to be violent or burn down a mosque, for example, but eyebrows have to be raised when a suicide bomber attempts to blow himself up at Imam Khomeini's Shrine. There are people who want to spread fear, death and hatred in Iran, such as Jundullah, and the opposition movement has to take that into consideration as to prevent it's movement from being manipulated and taken advantage of. I'm certainly not linking the entire opposition movement to mass violence, but I do think it is a relevant issue and one that actually occurred.

But, again, the opposition had enough trust to place their vote in the first place. They saw enough hope in the democratic process from the years leading up to the election and freedom in campaigning itself to press their fingers to the ink.

Once the ink dried though, the fingers made a V and hit the streets.

Civil disobedience, I believe, is only recognized as legitimate if it opposes unjust applications of the law but not the actual underlying system of law itself -- that's the difference between civil disobedience like the civil rights movement in America and revolutions which overturn systems. Generally, civil disobedience is a strategy employed when people believe their basic human dignity and rights are being violated -- but it is still a strategy which tries to "convince" the state to reform. But when Mousavi didn't give the law a chance, he damaged much of his credibility for the people who actually voted for Ahmadinejad, stood over the ballot boxes, and to the representitives who looked over the procedure.

There are certainly criticisms to be had of Ahmadinejad's policies and rhetoric, but was he assaulting the human dignity of Iranians prior to the elections? Can anyone truly say he clamped down on social freedoms during his first term? I was surprised to see the relative freedom people had when I visited this year in relation to a trip I had four years ago, when Reformist President Mohammad Khatami had just left office -- if not the same, I would say social freedom had even improved a bit.

I am a firm believer that there must be certain reforms within the Islamic Republic. I don't think anyone is fully content with the state of the country and what it could be in relation to it's potential. However, the post election protests severely damaged the country, created rifts, and gave hope to those who wish Iran ill. I'm not questioning whether people have the right to protest or challenge the law... I'm questioning whether the method was legitimate and if tangible and better results could have been achieved if the Green Movement took another route.

Let me be clear; there is plenty of blame to heap on Ahmadinejad and some of the more extreme crackdowns by internal security, and, as I have mentioned in previous posts, I believe there are legitimate, justified and real concerns in Iran which challenge policy and these are issues over which compromise and political inclusion must be reached. Unfortunately, Ahmadinejad has not been able to step up to his post and reconcile.

And I fear that we can achieve neither reconciliation nor justice when both the law and civility for each other are so blatantly disrespected and ignored.


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