Iran Has Already Changed

Voting started a few hours ago in Iran to answer one question: if President Ahmadinejad should be removed from office. Turnout is reportedly very high. There may be a relatively considerable election fraud. Still, the anti-Ahmadinejad candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi is expected to win — maybe today, maybe in the run-off next Friday.

But even before the results are announced and even if Ahmadinejad is somehow kept in office, Iran has already changed. Clearly more than half of the population, something around 60-70% of the electorate (counting estimated votes of all three opposition candidates) want the incumbent president removed. It is about Ahmadinejad’s personality, character, style, look, radicalism both in words and deeds, and his failures in economy and governance. It is about isolating and embarrassing Iran in the international community. In the view of the majority, he has hurt their lives and their national pride.

But time was also ripe for the change. It didn’t only happen in the four years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency. It was an accumulated failure of his and his predecessors’ policies: from rising inflation and unemployment in spite of rising oil prices to radical restrictions in the private sphere and lives of the people. From bribery and nepotism in investment bidding to monopolizing trade in the hands of the ruling elite’s sons. From Revolutionary Guards controlling the biggest share of economy to the Judiciary arbitrarily closing newspapers and blocking newspapers and throwing dissidents in prisons.

People are fed up not only with Ahmadinejad but also with the excesses of corruption and radicalism in the Islamic Republic.

The two resolve opponents of Ahmadinejad, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi as presidential candidates, gave people the opportunity to breathe change in the air that was already there but had no way until then to spread. The two have been sincere servants of the Islamic Revolution and its ideals and they have served in high positions of the system. No excuse for the hard-liners to accuse them of “regime change.” Even more, one, Mousavi, has been Iran’s prime minister for eight tough years of the Iraq-Iran war and earned a reputation of honesty and clean hands. The other, Karroubi, is a cleric, having fought along with the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini. People have been encouraged to hear their suppressed complaints from these two “leaders of change” and the same people have driven the society to more openness and change than what they have heard from those who in one month or so turned to lead the wave. 

Taboos are broken. People are enthusiastic and extremely politicized. Opposing Ahmadinejad and embarrassing him in graffiti and cartoons, jokes and slogans has become fashionable and “in.”

And it’s not only Ahmadinejad. The live TV debates of the candidates helped open a Pandora’s box: following the debates, virtually everybody talks openly about everything from the embezzlement of the former and current presidents and ministers to the killing of students and suppression of ethnic minorities’ rights.

What brought the country in such a high-speed way to the verge of a major political shift were not only those live TV debates. Newspapers and websites that were supporting critical voices inside the system, Facebook and other social networks that facilitated a free exchange of information and comments, intellectuals and university professors, women and youth who are all thirsty for an open country — they all helped with the formation and culmination of a social environment that  appears now to be irreversibly vibrant, daring to speak out, and speaking all the time louder — as if they were trying out the limits of freedoms on the one hand and the regime’s exhaustion, on the other.

What people seem to breathe in the air is not only a new name as the country’s president but also a complete set of major changes: from economy and administration to education, investment and foreign policy. Everybody, according to his or her political wish list, expects his or her favored opposition candidate to fulfill the list.

This whole new attitude toward the political system, openness, the lively debate and the freedom to criticize the traditionally “sacred” values and personalities seem to have become an irreversible, peaceful, loyal-to-the-system but still somewhat revolutionary change that will not go away even if Ahmadinejad is today (or next Friday) forcibly declared the winner.

Those with extreme wish lists will come to be disappointed, to be sure. But Iran’s political and social landscape will no longer be the same as it was a few months ago. They will either harshly crack down on this new wave of change and moderation to delay its reappearance in short term or accept it for the Islamic Republic’s own good. In either case, Iran has changed.