Going Ahmadinejad Crazy About An Election In Far Away Iran

Photo From Liberal International

Adam Smith famously postulated that a man of humanity would worry more about the prospect of losing his little finger tomorrow, than if the entire empire of China and all its inhabitants were to be swallowed up by an earthquake. And Americans are not exactly famed for their interest in or knowledge of foreign lands and shores; a Roper poll for the National Geographic found that 60% of young Americans couldn’t find Iran’s neighbor Iraq on a map.

So why is social media and the blogosphere all atwitter with a presidential election taking place in Iran of all places? Normally we can just vilify the country and its ‘mad mullahs’, and get back to blaming Barack Obama for Letterman’s jokes about Sarah Palin’s daughter’s sex-life, right?

Wrong. Iran-related tags take fourth and fifth spots on Twitter Search trending topics a few hours before first results are due in, and many US tweeps are excited and positive in their postings too. Which got me thinking, how come this election in particular is grabbing people’s attention?

Get out of the basement

Total time spent on Facebook has increased almost 700% year on year and Twitter growth was an obscene 3712%, Nielsen reported in April of this year; there is no doubt that social media sites are enabling users to create online content, previously the exclusive domain of geeks sitting in their mothers’ basements, “ranting into the ether between games of dungeons and dragons”, as some old dude’s campaign spokesman opined last year. Put shortly, the active audience is exploding, and it’s getting easier and easier for that audience to contribute. This growth is so fast that we can expect big changes in participation from election to election. But that doesn’t explain why that larger audience is interested in Iran’s election.

The Obama effect

Stability and even peace in the Middle East is a central plank of Obama’s foreign policy, something that became clear even to non-wonks with his wide-ranging and generally well-received ‘New Beginning’ speech in Cairo on June 4th. While the US wingnut fringe went into apoplexy, speaking with one unequivocal voice to Israel, reaching out to Muslims and clearly articulating American responsibilities past and present means that cogent observers in both East and West have started to believe that Obama’s efforts have at least the potential of a new beginning, albeit with reservations.

It is clear that this direct connection between the US President and the prospect of real change on the ground in the Middle East is likely to awaken the interest and attention of many Americans, especially at a time when Obama is new in the job, enjoying relatively high approval ratings on the one hand, and making the right spitting mad on the other.

The first small glimmer of hope that Obama’s new direction could deliver real change, came with the Lebanese parliamentary election on Sunday June 7th; against expectations, the Syria-Iranian aligned opposition which includes Hezbollah won only 57 seats, against the American-aligned coalition taking 71. As the NY Times pointed out, one election does not make a summer, but for the first time in a long time, being US-aligned did not lead to automatic defeat in a Middle East election. Even if understanding Middle East politics is harder than nailing jello to the ceiling, the Twitterati gets that there’s a connection between countries in the region; perhaps the small tremble in Lebanon was the foreshock to an earthquake in Iran?

Everyone loves a good punch-up

On my right, Holocaust-denier, anti-semite and puppy-eater (allegedly… by me), cradling nuclear arms plans in one hand, and brandishing the falsified university degree of his opponent’s wife in the other, Mahmoud “looks-pretty-nuts-to-me” Ahmadinejad. To my left, reformer, painter and architect, newspaper editor, friend of the poor and rather professorial-looking Mir-Hossein Mousavi: and his wife goes on the stump for him. Now let me think, can I pick a favorite here? Damn right I can; this is the best set-up of a fight since Mother Theresa faced down Pol Pot. Possibly. The point is, the personal narrative of this battle is the stuff that script-writers’ dreams are made of; you don’t have to understand politics to get into this one, it’s a roll-over.

Added to that, we have the Zahra ‘Michelle’ Rahnavard effect; Mousavi’s wife is the first ever spouse to go on the stump with an Iranian presidential candidate, she’s not only an accomplished artist, but also holds several degrees in political science and was a university chancellor – the two of them even seem to like each other. This seems to be a signal to Iran’s predominantly youthful population that Mousavi is the best chance they have of Iran’s strict moral code laws being reformed anytime this century.

Keep your expectations low and you won’t be disappointed

By now the results are beginning to roll in, and those of us who are hoping for some small step of reform in Iran and progress in Middle East/West relations are likely to end up disappointed. But alone the fact that a lot of Western bloggers and tweeters, non-wonks and political junkies alike, are taking an interest is a kind of progress as well. Whatever the reasons for the excitement and involvement we’re seeing today.

Article by Peter Larsen
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