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.

Few academic "experts" have viewed Iran with clarity. And many journalists have for years played down the harsh reality of the ruling regime. Some have been hoodwinked; others have worried about the possibility of knocks on their hotel room doors late at night.

Far-left romantics long envisioned Khomeini as Che Guevara in a turban instead of a beret, leading a global insurgency against America and its imperialist/colonialist allies (Israel in particular). Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would love to be cast in this light. "The internationalist capitalist order is retreating," he proclaimed on a visit to Russia just after his Soviet-style re-election.

But there have been more astute observers of Iran as well. Michael Ledeen, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Michael Rubin and Amir Taheri are among those who have harbored no illusions about either the methods or goals of the theocrats.

The truth is Khomeini and his followers were never freedom fighters. "Don't listen to those who speak of democracy," Khomeini said in March 1979. "They all are against Islam. ... We will break all the poison pens of those who speak of nationalism, democracy, and such things. "

Khomeinists believe in the strictest possible interpretation of the Koranic injunction to "command right and forbid wrong." It was with that in mind that, in 1979, the drinking of alcohol was forbidden, not just for Muslims but also for infidels in Iran. I still have the memo issued by the management of the hotel at which I and most other foreign journalists lodged, warning of unpleasant consequences should we ignore the prohibition.

More to the point: If "commanding right and forbidding wrong" is your religious and political obligation, what do you do when Iranians go to the polls and vote wrongly, instead of rightly? Apparently, you hand the election to the "right" candidate, in the current instance to Ahmadinejad, including in his opponent's home region, and without bothering to count millions of paper ballots.

I remained in Iran for a while after the 1979 elections, but as revolutionary ardor cooled, there was less and less news to report. By summer, most foreign journalists departed.

Many Iranian revolutionaries found it hard to put down their guns and pick up their tools, hoes and books again. A sort of post-partum depression set in: For years, Iranians had dreamed of a revolution that would transform their lives. Now they had had their revolution and their lives were not transformed -- except women would have to hide themselves under chadors and it was more dangerous than ever to say out loud what you were thinking.

So in the autumn, a group of about 400 of Khomeini's young followers - Ahmadinejad may have been among them -- invaded the American embassy, took the diplomats hostage, bound them, blindfolded them, beat them, subjected them to mock executions and, in other way, tormented them.

Khomeini realized this could fuel the flickering revolutionary flames while also showing the world that infidels are a feckless lot, or, as he phrased it: "America cannot do a damn thing."

America was "held hostage" for 444 days. As the scholar Matthias Kuntzel has pointed out: "The more assiduously President Carter sought compromise, the more contemptuously he was mocked by Khomeini." It required a more hardnosed president to persuade the Supreme Leader to let the Americans go.

Over the years that followed, Khomeini's revolution failed, and not only by liberal democratic standards - more people executed, imprisoned and driven into exile than under the Shah, egregious violations of human rights, sponsorship of terrorism, Holocaust denial and genocidal threats. It failed also by Khomeini's standards.

Just as the Russian Revolution and the social engineering of Lenin and Stalin did not create a "New Soviet Man," so Iran's Islamic Revolution has not succeeded in creating a new Islamist Man -- one who wants nothing more than to obey Iran's religious ruling class and fight for the imposition of Islamic law around the world.

This is what Iran's demonstrators are demonstrating. They are waging a revolution for hope that has been denied and change that, it seemed, would never come. President Obama's moral support should be loud and clear.

Whether this revolution will prevail or be crushed, I'm not competent to predict.

I do wonder whatever happened to Bijan, and which side he's on today.


Cliff May

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