Iran may not have listened intently to the Obama Cairo speech. Because another political drama is playing out on their streets. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is up for re-election, and while he does not control the military arsenal or responsibility over much of the lawmaking in Iran - that's reserved for the Supreme Leader - the elections, which are more free than other parts of the Muslim world, represent a good way to sort of take the temperature of the Iranian people. And the results have been, to this point, quite remarkable:
I don't know whether you have been reading the various press accounts of the election campaign in Iran. I know that the candidates' list is fixed, but I can also see democratic spirit when it is bang in front of me. There appears to be a genuine fight for votes; and the images from the Mousavi rallies look more like Obama rallies than assemblies in a totalitarian state. Notice how young these people look, and how unafraid.
Now check out this video of a public clash between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi supporters in the streets of Tehran. It's vivid, electrifying stuff - not a sign of a brutal totalitarian regime. I know we have to be cautious and I know who holds the military power. But we should not be blind to change when it emerges. Ahmadinejad has discredited himself in the eyes of many Iranians. They are looking for change they can believe in. This is the target audience for Obama this Thursday. He needs to reach out to the democratic forces in that country and remind them that America is their ally.
Sullivan has some residual "Arab Spring" issues to deal with, but there's no question that the democratic impulse is robust in Iranian society right now. "Mousavi" is Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former Prime Minister and reformist candidate with the support of former reformist President Mohammed Khatami. Their debate the other night was pretty remarkable:
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main rival in the June 12 election, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, held a remarkably frank debate Wednesday night that exposed deep differences among Iran's leaders and presented voters with two completely opposing views.
During the 90-minute debate, which was televised live, the candidates openly delved into topics in a way never seen in the Islamic republic, touching on foreign policy and corruption. In addition, Ahmadinejad raised questions about the academic credentials of Mousavi's wife, a former professor.
The candidates represent two factions in Iran's system of Shiite clerical government. In the debate, Ahmadinejad, in a beige suit and surrounded by stacks of papers, portrayed his opponent as a pawn of Iran's political elite, which he said was corrupt and weak in the face of Western pressure.
Mousavi, a painter and architect, said Ahmadinejad's controversial international and domestic policies were a danger to Iran's future. He accused the president of driving the country toward a "dictatorship" and acting as if he owned the truth. "You think you are higher than all," he told Ahmadinejad.
A large part of the debate centered on foreign policy. Mousavi said Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust had cost Iran much international standing. "Tell me, who are our friends in the region?" he asked the president. Mousavi said the country had became internationally isolated.
These are open debates that Iranians can access and engage with. It puts the lie to the conservative idea of Iran as a monolithic society of America-haters. And the results should be extremely interesting.