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Jonathan Power: Democracy Gone to Seed?

The confused situation in Honduras, where elected president Manuel Zelaya has been shown the door by the army and the supreme court, and in Iran, where thousands in the street protest an election they view as bogus, are not especially easy to solve with the simple shout: "Obey the rules of democracy." To many across the developing world, it seems that the West once again is being holier than thou. But is democracy such an intrinsic wonder? “Democracy,” wrote historian Norman Davies, in his monumental study Europe, “has few values of its own: it is as good or bad as the principles of the people who operate it. In the hands of liberal and tolerant people, it will produce a liberal and tolerant government; in the hands of cannibals, a government of cannibals. In Germany in 1933-4 it produced a Nazi government because the prevailing culture of Germany’s voters did not give priority to the exclusion of gangsters.” The Nazis, in three out of the five elections they contested, increased both their popular vote and their election of deputies. In time, they became the largest party in the Reichstag. Despite the party’s street violence and the murders of its opponents, the then-chancellor, Franz von Papen, decided to make Hitler chancellor and himself his deputy. Two years later, Hitler called a plebiscite to approve his elevation to the new position of Fuhrer and Reich Chancellor. He gained 90 percent of the vote—a democratic means to facist ends. Maybe Berthold Brecht was right. We have to change the people. Democracy was a Greek idea. But it did not last and was forgotten for some 2,000 years, until Enlightenment thinkers resurrected the idea, blending their classical knowledge with a romanticized image of ancient Athens. But not all were so taken by these new thoughts. De Tocqueville wrote about “the tyranny of the majority.” Edmund Burke called the democracy of the French Revolution “the most shameless thing in the world.”

Azubuike Ishiekwene: Echoes of 1979 in Iranian Protests

Thirty years after the Shah was overthrown in a revolution, Iran is embroiled in an upheaval that appears to be threatening the grip of the Ayatollah over the country. There are striking ironies between what happened in 1979 under the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and what is happening today under Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the incumbent supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The way the Shah fell out with his Western allies, especially the United States, over arms build-up in the mid-1970s, has eerie parallels to the way the mullahs in Tehran have fallen out with Washington over Iran’s nuclear weapons program, among other issues. What has been dramatized today as the Iranian Revolution, Part II, is a delicate, almost inscrutable power game, fueled by suspicions and deep-seated mutual distrust on both sides. It wasn’t always like that. At the height of the love affair between Iran and the West in the 1950s up through the 1970s, the Shah could do no wrong. To fend off any possible communist incursions, the United States poured millions of dollars into Iran to shore up the Shah. The oil windfall of the late 1970s, brought on by the Arab-Israeli war, was also a blessing to Iran. The Shah took advantage of the profits to rebuild his country and a new middle class was born. The downside of the boom, of course, was that it created in the Shah a new taste for luxury and power beyond the pale. He went to extraordinary lengths to sustain his appetite. He created the SAVAK, a special (and much loathed) security and intelligence force, trained and backed by the United States, which helped him to rule with an iron fist and isolated him from the people. Washington did not seem to mind, at least not in the early stages of the Shah’s neurosis. A blog by Jeb Sharp on Iran-U.S. relations quoted Henry Precht, the young American intelligence officer who managed arms sales between the United States and Iran under the Shah, as saying, “They promised the Shah that he could buy whatever he wanted and no one would quibble with him. Everything up to but not including nuclear weapons. So, that was my marching orders, facilitate, don’t get in the way of this process.... Then came the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Oil prices rose dramatically. Suddenly, the Shah was flush with money. He bought massive quantities of the most high-tech weaponry money could buy. US officials were unsettled by the consequences of their bargain.” Eventually, the Shah’s opulent lifestyle and tight hold on power through the security forces isolated the middle class, sidelined the communists and the mullahs, and narrowed the political space. Moreover, Pahlavi's new hunger for high-tech military weapons—some argue that he laid the foundation for Iran’s nuclear program—isolated him from his Western allies, especially from Washington. By the time he was overthrown in 1979, he was a sad, broken man; betrayed and completely on his own.



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