Saturday, February 11, 2012

Post #182 - What Goes On Over There?

"Men in authority will always think that criticism of their policies is dangerous. They will always equate their policies with patriotism, and find criticism subversive." (Henry Steele Commager, Freedom and Order)

"…for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke: 18:14)

"Is Iran as Democratic as the United States?" This was the title of an unusual blog by Scott Adams, the creator of the popular syndicated comic strip Dilbert. Known for his insightful and scathing cartoon critiques of corporate culture, Adams took a very different approach in this piece. Though it uses informal language, the message is quite serious:

I've been trying to understand Iran's form of government. They have a President, who is elected by the people, and is the second most powerful person in the country. That sounds democratic. But he's not the top dude.

Above the president is the Supreme Leader who controls the military and police. He also appoints the heads of the judiciary, and state radio and television networks. And he has a great catch-all power described as being "responsible for delineation and supervision of 'the general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran.'" In effect, he can diddle with just about anything that starts getting too un-Islamic or generally harmful to the country in his opinion. So it's a broad power.

The Supreme Leader is chosen by the Assembly of Experts, based on his qualifications and his esteem. They can also dismiss him.

The Assembly of Experts is a bunch of learned clerics who are elected by the public in democratic elections. They meet once a year. Their meetings are secret, but they've never been known to challenge the decisions of the Supreme Leader.

Recapping, the citizens of Iran elect members of the Assembly of Experts, who in turn select the Supreme Leader, and can fire him if necessary. He's essentially in charge of national security and keeping things appropriately Islamic.

The president is elected in a national system and handles the other governmental functions such as the economy, educations, etc.

How's that not as democratic as the system in the United States?

Granted, the Supreme Leader has a lot of power. But he's not a dictator. He's elected by people who are themselves elected. It reminds me of the Electoral College.

The Supreme Leader can effectively diddle with anything he wants under the umbrella of supervising the "general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran." But that sounds a lot like our own Supreme Court, who are not elected officials. A lot of Americans think the Supreme Court is more active than it ought to be.

I suppose someone is going to tell me that Iran's system of government is really a sham, and that the people in power are only giving the appearance of a democratic system. For example, the Supreme Leader can determine who is allowed to run for office in the first place. How's that worse than the American version in which big money interests only allow people named Clinton or Bush to get elected president? It's different, but is it functionally less democratic?

Adams ends with a disclaimer: “If you are new to The Dilbert Blog, I remind you that I have no idea what I'm talking about when it comes to world affairs. The point is for you to set me straight in the comments.” Perhaps this is just a thought-provoking, tongue-in-cheek exercise by a humorist, but look at these notes from Scott Ritter (former UN arms inspector) during a trip to Iran in 2006:

Ritter in Iraq
"[People] were genuinely perplexed as to why we in the West treat Ahmadinezhad as if he were a genuine head of state. 'This man has no real power,' a former Revolutionary Guard member told me. 'The true power in Iran rests with the Supreme Leader.' The real authority is indeed the Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, successor to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. According to the Iranian Constitution, the Supreme Leader has absolute authority over all matters pertaining to national security, including the armed forces, the police and the Revolutionary Guard. Only the Supreme Leader can declare war. In this regard, all aspects of Iran's nuclear program are controlled by Khamenei, and Ahmadinezhad has no bearing on the issue. Curiously...very little attention has been paid to the Supreme Leader's pronouncement – in the form of a fatwa, or religious edict – that Iran rejects outright the acquisition of nuclear weapons...While Ahmadinezhad plays to the Iranian street with his inflammatory rhetoric, the true authority in Iran has been attempting to navigate a path of moderation."

Ritter, you may remember, was the marine colonel charged with analyzing our success in taking out the Scud rockets in Saddam's arsenal during the Gulf War. (At certain points, the “confirmed hits” were overtaking by a wide margin the number of Scuds known to exist prior to the assault!) His report, the substance of which was confirmed by the Air Force's own Gulf War Air Power Survey, inconveniently found that not a single missile had been destroyed by our vaunted anti-missile systems and six weeks of bombing. Apparently because of this Ritter was “denied promotion” and left the military shortly thereafter, to conduct inspections in Iraq for the IAEA.

Dilbert's creators, with tongue in cheek, and Ritter with his technical and military background, both press their readers to examine their assumptions. Do we really know the significance, for example, of the fact that Ali Akbar Rafsanjani was appointed, a few years ago, to chair the Assembly of Experts? Considered more moderate than Ahmadinezhad, he is now at the top of a body that monitors the performance of the Supreme Leader, and which can dismiss him and pick his successor (Refsanjani already heads the powerful Expediency Council). Just this week, Ahmadinezhad was summoned to give testimony before a committee of the parliament.  When was the last time an American president was required to appear on Capital Hill for anything but a State of the Union? Even at the height of the Watergate investigations or during the impeachment hearings on Bill Clinton, this was not attempted. It's a different system -- which is my point.

It is true that the Iranian system needs a lot of changing – but then it is not my country and my government to fix. The U.S. system also needs a lot of changing – that is my responsibility. Jim Wallis quotes the late community activist Lisa Sullivan as saying, “we are the people we have been waiting for.”

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