26 June 2005
One reason for the high turnout in Iran's presidential election, it was claimed yesterday, was President Bush's condemnation of the process before it began as ignoring "the basic requirements of democracy". Even though many reformists were excluded from standing, to the frustration of Iranians as well as the White House, the election bore comparison with those the President praised, in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian Authority. And the US as well as the rest of us will have to live with the result Mr Bush arguably helped to bring about: a landslide for a blinkered populist over his more worldly opponent, who might at least have understood Western concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Nobody is arguing that Iran is a functioning democracy - far from it. Nearly three decades after the Islamic revolution, the elected portion of the government remains subordinate to the stifling, impenetrable rule of an unelected theocracy whose main characteristics are prickly nationalism and a poor grasp of economic management. Their constant obstruction of the outgoing president, Mohammed Khatami, bred disillusionment among the urban elite, who supported his attempts at social liberalisation. But stagnation and complacency have also brought corruption. The paradoxical effect of this popular frustration has been the victory of the ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a strong supporter of the clerics who believes Iran did not have a revolution "in order to have democracy".
Influencing the process from outside is difficult. It requires subtlety and patience of the kind displayed by the European foreign ministers, including Britain's, who have sought to negotiate a way out of a potential nuclear standoff. The simplistic talk of the White House, which seems to believe that all the Middle East needs is its own definition of democracy, is not helping. The lesson it needs to absorb is that the results of democracy are not always predictable or convenient.