Cliff May

A blatantly fraudulent election may have been the spark that ignited Iran's current rebellion but don't be misled: Iran has never had free and fair elections.

I was in Iran 30 years ago for the first elections held under the gaze of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the dourly militant leader of Iran's Islamist revolution. I was a young and inexperienced foreign correspondent unconvinced by older and more experienced foreign correspondents that Khomeini and his followers intended to transform Iran into a freer and more just society, rather than one that would be brutally oppressive at home and threatening abroad.

I carried a small, portable typewriter so I could file stories for Hearst Newspapers (there were quite a few in those days), a large, Nagra tape recorder (then the technological cutting edge) so I could prepare radio reports for CBS, and I was working with an Iranian producer on a television documentary for Bill Moyers at PBS.

Our crew - a cameraman and soundman - recorded Iranians going to the polls. "Isn't this wonderful?" I recall the producer, whose first name was Bijan, asking me. "Democracy in Iran!" My reply conveyed minimal enthusiasm. Insulted, Bijan asked me why. "Because Khomeini's representatives are everywhere. They're watching to see how people vote."

"Do you think if they were not watching people would vote differently?" he asked. I said I did not. But democracy requires opposition candidates, secret ballots and neutrality on the part of those who count them. Every Iranian election since, more than 30, has featured candidates approved by the Supreme Leader -- the Orwellian title given to the dictatorial head of Iran's well-armed religious establishment -- with no independent oversight of the balloting.

Peggy Noonan wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal: "America so often gets Iran wrong." CNN analyst Jeffrey Toobin said almost exactly the same thing on the air last week. (Coincidently, his father was the public television executive who sent me to Iran in 1979, stuffing my pockets with cash because we were not confident that credit cards or checks would be useful in the midst of a revolution.)

The CIA determined in August 1978 that Iran "is not in a revolutionary or even pre-revolutionary situation." After the revolution, President Carter's UN Ambassador, Andrew Young, called Khomeini "some kind of saint." Other commentators compared Khomeini to Gandhi.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.