Is there hope for Iran?

A blatantly fraudulent election may have been the spark that ignited Iran’s current rebellion but don’t be misled: Iran has never had free and fair elections.

I was in Iran 30 years ago for the first elections held under the gaze of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the dourly militant leader of Iran’s Islamist revolution. I was a young and inexperienced foreign correspondent unconvinced by older and more experienced foreign correspondents that Khomeini and his followers intended to transform Iran into a freer and more just society, rather than one that would be brutally oppressive at home and threatening abroad.

I carried a portable typewriter so I could file stories for Hearst Newspapers, a Nagra tape recorder (then the technological cutting edge) so I could prepare radio reports for CBS, and I was working with an Iranian producer on a television documentary for Bill Moyers at PBS.

Our crew — a cameraman and a soundman — recorded Iranians going to the polls. "Isn’t this wonderful?" the producer, whose first name was Bijan, asked me. "Democracy in Iran!" My reply conveyed minimal enthusiasm. Insulted, Bijan asked me why. "Because Khomeini’s representatives are everywhere. They’re watching to see how people vote."

"Do you think if they were not watching people would vote differently?" he asked. I said I did not. But democracy requires opposition candidates, secret ballots and neutrality on the part of those who count them. Every Iranian election since, more than 30, has featured candidates approved by the Supreme Leader — the Orwellian title given to the dictatorial head of Iran’s well-armed religious establishment — with no independent oversight of the balloting.

President Carter’s UN Ambassador, Andrew Young, called Khomeini "some kind of saint." Other commentators compared Khomeini to Gandhi. Few academic "experts" have viewed Iran with clarity. And many journalists have for years played down the harsh reality of the ruling regime. Some have been hoodwinked; others worried about knocks on hotel room doors late at night.

Romantics of the far left have long envisioned Khomeini as Che Guevara in a turban, leading a global revolution against America and its allies (Israel in particular). Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would love to be cast in this light. "The internationalist capitalist order is retreating," he proclaimed on a visit to Russia just after his Soviet-style re-election.

The truth is Khomeini and his followers were never freedom fighters. "Don’t listen to those who speak of democracy," Khomeini said in March 1979. "They all are against Islam. … We will break all the poison pens of those who speak of nationalism, democracy, and such things. "

Khomeinists believe in the strictest possible interpretation of the Koranic injunction to "command right and forbid wrong." But if that is your religious and political obligation, what do you do when Iranians go to the polls and vote wrongly, instead of rightly? Apparently, you hand the election to the "right" candidate, in the current instance to Ahmadinejad, without bothering to count millions of paper ballots.

Khomeini’s revolution has failed, and not only by our standards — more people executed, imprisoned and driven into exile than under the Shah, egregious violations of human rights, sponsorship of terrorism, Holocaust denial and genocidal threats. It failed also by Khomeini’s standards.

Just as the Russian Revolution and the social engineering of Lenin and Stalin did not create a "New Soviet Man," so Iran’s Islamic Revolution has not created a new Islamist Man — one who would want nothing more than to obey Iran’s religious ruling class and work for the imposition of Islamic law around the world.

This is what Iran’s demonstrators are demonstrating. They are waging a revolution for hope that has been denied and change that, it seemed, would never come. President Obama’s moral support should be loud and clear.

(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. E-mail him at cliff(at)