Thursday, June 16, 2005

Iran’s people face yet another faked election today, with eight candidates for president, all hand-picked by the regime, facing off in a tragic parody of democracy.

The parody is obvious. Hundreds of other candidates were disqualified well before the vote by the Council of Guardians, including every single woman who sought to run. The council of 12 radical clerics, desperate to maintain the clergy’s absolute rule, was careful to allow only candidates they could count on to toe the line if elected.

Whoever wins Friday, the regime wins. At least, that’s how the mullahs have it figured.

The tragic side of this Friday’s elections can be felt in the Iranian people’s desire for freedom, and their mounting frustration with the indifference of the international community, including the U.S., to their appeals for help.

Two weeks ago outside Paris, I spoke with Abolhassan Banisadr, the Islamic Republic’s first (and only) freely elected president. Deposed in a coup in 1981, he has been a target of assassination by regime hit teams ever since.

Mr. Banisadr told me regime internal tracking polls, leaked to his supporters, showed the regime’s own Interior Ministry expected voter turnout to be about 27 percent. Mr. Banisadr is urging his supporters inside Iran to boycott the elections.

In Tehran, where anti-regime protests have erupted all week, a scant 5 percent turnout is expected. As Iranians realize the mullahs have no intention of allowing elections to infringe on their absolute power, calls for a massive boycott have come from virtually all factions of the Iranian opposition.

Groups that normally oppose each other, from monarchists to the center-left National Front, have joined together in calling for a boycott.

Mohsen Sazegara, a founder of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards who became disenchanted with the regime and has been jailed twice for speaking out against clerical rule, has called on Western governments not to recognize any government issued from these elections. If the elections are illegitimate, he told me in Washington last month, anyone who comes to power through them also will be illegitimate.

But the mullahs have a scheme. Sunday, bombs killed 10 persons in Ahwaz and Tehran. The regime blames opposition groups, but pro-democracy advocate Sardar Haddad tells me the regime has a record of staging violence to further its ends.

“They want an excuse to get the army out on the street to put down anti-regime demonstrations as the elections approach,” he said. “The last thing they want, with all the international media now in Iran, is for thousands of demonstrators to be photographed protesting the regime.”

The thirst for freedom unites Iranians, says Roozbeh Farahanipour, a leader of the July 1999 student rising now living in the U.S. Last weekend on the Mall at a pro-democracy rally sponsored by Citizens United, Mr. Farahanipour applauded the Bush administration for “speaking out against the lack of freedom and human rights in occupied Iran.”

But he and other pro-democracy fighters want us to do more. “We need real help, tangible support from the world’s sole superpower,” Mr. Farahanipour said.

How can the United States help?

(1) By recognizing the struggle of Iranians for freedom. The administration should denounce the murderers of dissidents, and applaud the freedom-fighters, and we should call both heroes and villains by name. In facing tyranny, we must demonstrate clear purpose and identify evil where we see it.

(2) The U.S. should encourage other democratic nations to join in refusing recognition to a new government in Iran issued from undemocratic elections.

(3) As Mr. Farahanipour and others have suggested, we should massively fund the pro-democracy movement inside Iran.

As the clock of Iran’s nuclear weapons program ticks steadily closer to midnight, we have very little time to accelerate the pro-democracy clock. Yet failure to invest heavily in freedom — say, by spending $100 million this year — could cost us far more down the line, both in treasure and in lost American lives.

With its new nuclear capabilities, the clerical regime has become a clear and present danger for the United States. We have very little time to get this right.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is president of Middle East Data Project Inc. and author “Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Crisis with Iran,” released this week from Crown Forum.

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