Isn't it revealing that autocrats and dictators around the globe bother to stage phony elections in order to claim legitimacy? Remember Saddam Hussein telling Dan Rather in 2002 that he had won 99 percent of the vote? Fidel Castro routinely claims to receive overwhelming majorities in his rigged elections, and throughout Africa, potentates of various stripes adopt the title "president" without any true democratic backing.
Iran, too, has staged phony elections to bolster the tyrannical regime of the mullahs -- but while the Iranian people have voted overwhelmingly for reform, they have gotten only more repression.
It's worth dwelling on the importance undemocratic regimes attach to democratic window-dressing. By so doing, they signal an important concession -- namely, that only elections can grant legitimacy to governments.
In 1776, the idea that legitimacy can flow only from the consent of the governed was, well, revolutionary. In 2005, it is axiomatic -- if only imperfectly translated into action. Saddam did not claim that dictatorship was superior to democracy. The mullahs, for all their religious fanaticism, do not claim to have received the mandate of heaven to govern Iran. All claim to be genuine democrats.
There is power in this insight. Recall the situation in Nicaragua in the 1980s and early 1990s. The Sandinista regime was Marxist. It came to power originally as part of a coalition elected after the fall of dictator Anastasio Somoza. Once in power, the Sandinistas purged the more moderate members of the coalition and began to build a Cuban-style totalitarian regime. In 1984, they staged a phony election and declared themselves re-elected. But as the United States began to apply pressure by aiding the armed non-communist opposition (the "Contras"), and as the other nations of Central America began to demand free and fair elections in Nicaragua, the more cornered the regime in Managua became.
In the end, as the Soviet Union was collapsing and Eastern Europe was breaking the shackles of a half century of repression, the Sandinistas finally consented to hold truly free elections. It was the first time a communist country had held a free election. It was also the last. They were defeated in a landslide (albeit one that caught liberals in the United States by surprise).
President Bush's policy of promoting democracy around the world has met with skepticism, even ridicule, among the so-called foreign policy realists. But consider the psychological jolt the elections in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian Authority have sent through the body politic of the Middle East. No citizen of Iran, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait or a half-dozen other countries in the region can be indifferent to the spectacle of Iraqis drafting and approving their own constitution. Nor can he ignore the rapid progress that a freely elected Mahmoud Abbas is making toward peace with Israel.
Iran can be the next Nicaragua. Like Nicaragua, Iran is now bordered by more than one free (or soon to be free) country -- Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan. Like Nicaragua, Iran is a human rights nightmare. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the U.S. State Department have repeatedly cited Iran for abuse, torture and murder. As Michael Ledeen reported in National Review Online: "Hundreds of democracy advocates are being tortured in Iran's prisons. Tens of thousands have been killed in the past six years, beginning with the mass murders of protesters in 1989. Public executions are commonplace, and women are routinely executed by stoning." A 16-year-old mentally retarded girl was recently hanged for "indecent" behavior.
And like Nicaragua, Iran has an enormous internal opposition. Sen. Rick Santorum is working on legislation to commit the United States to support the democratic opposition in Iran. Let it be open and forthright, as was Reagan's aid to the Contras.
President Bush has already offered a psychological boost by telling the Iranian people in his Inaugural Address that the United States stands with those who fight for freedom everywhere. Those words alone were enough to send thousands of Iranians into the streets. In the dark corners of Iran's prisons, there must be thousands of prisoners who -- like Natan Sharansky, who thrilled to hear Reagan's speeches on freedom while he suffered in a Soviet prison -- now believe that there may yet be hope for them and their beleaguered country.
Ledeen suggests the next logical step: Demand a free and internationally supervised referendum on the mullahcracy. If Europe, Iran's neighbors and the United States join in pressuring the regime to prove its legitimacy with a truly free vote, Tehran may have to succumb.