Roger Cohen's Mea Culpa

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on June 14, 2009

Mideast Iran Election

The New York Times columnist was one of those most insistent on hailing a new dawn in Iran in advance of the vote. Now he realizes he was completely in error:

Throughout the country, across regions of vast social and ethnic disparity, including Azeri areas that had indicated strong support for Moussavi (himself an Azeri), Ahmadinejad’s margin scarcely wavered, ending at an official 62.63 percent. That’s 24.5 million votes, a breathtaking 8 million more than he got four years ago.

No tally I’ve encountered of Ahmadinejad’s bedrock support among the rural and urban poor, religious conservatives and revolutionary ideologues gets within 6 million votes of that number.

Ahmadinejad won in other candidates’ hometowns, including Moussavi’s. He won in every major city except Tehran. He won very big, against the backdrop of an economic slump.

He won as the Interior Ministry was sealed, opposition Web sites were shut down, text messages were cut off, cell phones were interrupted, Internet access was impeded, dozens of opposition figures were arrested, universities were closed and a massive show of force was orchestrated to ram home the result to an incredulous public.

Overnight, a whole movement and mood were vaporized, to the point that they appeared a hallucination.

The crowds called it a “coup d’état.” They shouted “Marg Bar Dictator” — “Death to the dictator.” Eyes smoldered.

I’ve argued for engagement with Iran and I still believe in it, although, in the name of the millions defrauded, President Obama’s outreach must now await a decent interval.

I’ve also argued that, although repressive, the Islamic Republic offers significant margins of freedom by regional standards. I erred in underestimating the brutality and cynicism of a regime that understands the uses of ruthlessness.

Some of us, of course, saw something like this coming a while back. To be fair to Cohen, however, he finally seems to get it when it comes to what is at stake in Iran:

“Here is my country,” a young woman said to me, voice breaking. “This is a coup. I could have worked in Europe but I came back for my people.” And she, too, sobbed.

“Don’t cry, be brave,” a man admonished her.

He was from the Interior Ministry. He showed his ID card. He said he’d worked there 30 years. He said he hadn’t been allowed in; nor had most other employees. He said the votes never got counted. He said numbers just got affixed to each candidate.

He said he’d demanded of the police why “victory” required such oppression. He said he’d fought in the 1980-88 Iraq war, his brother was a martyr, and now his youth seemed wasted and the nation’s sacrifice in vain.

Quoting Ferdowsi, the epic poet, he said, “If there is no Iran, let me be not.” Poets are the refuge of every wounded nation — just ask the Poles — and nowhere more so than here in this hour.

Toss away the notebook, Roger.

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