Two incongruent images come to mind when I think of my friend Shahrzad's Iranian father.
There is the high-grade caviar and chilled vodka he serves when he visits the United States for special family occasions. The treat is akin to his refined nature and worldly, sophisticated views.
And then there is the political culture of the country he comes from, a theocracy in which an ayatollah is supreme leader for life and a buffoon of a president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seems to exult in his own ignorance.
One does not correlate to the other. The vodka, the caviar, I can appreciate. I find Iran's government structure of vaguely democratic elections and Islamic theocracy almost incomprehensible.
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It's an important admission during these days of 24-hour news coverage of Iranian protests over a presidential election that appears pretty plainly to have been rigged.
The size of the protests and the apparent depth of the opposition have taken the West by surprise, and despite the Iranian government's attempts to squelch the foreign press, the drama is riveting. But we can't be quite sure just what we are witnessing.
That hasn't stopped the always cocksure American right wing from goading President Barack Obama to issue stern denunciations and threaten dire consequences.
Sen. John McCain has criticized Obama for not going further than the seemingly tepid but wise and measured remarks he's offered so far. Obama has expressed his "deep concerns about the election." But he's also willing to learn from past U.S.mistakes, noting "it's not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling."
Obama will certainly continue to be pummeled by many a commentator and political detractor for the stand, but he's right. Even if one were to believe that our only policy objective with respect to Iran were regime change, it would be difficult to imagine events proceeding better than they currently are. Do conservatives really believe that cause would be helped by McCain-style bluster from the White House?
If Iran's government needs reform, it is Iran's people that must make that case — and they are, very eloquently; tragically even with their lives. The last thing Iranian reformers and protesters need is to be painted as agents of the Great Satan.
Meanwhile, the United States has vital interests at stake, such as our desire to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Restraint, not fire-breathing political rhetoric reminiscent of the last administration, is the way to safeguard our position. Apparently, McCain is willing to discount those realities.
As for the rest of us, we lap up foreign news coverage in odd ways. We expect drama like the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, or the military vengeance that retook Tiananmen Square. It's as if we're propped on our sofas awaiting the visuals and then a sequel, the phoenix-like rising of a democratic system.
Reconfiguring governments doesn't work that way. Most occur through tedious shifts in philosophy and, yes, through repeated protests.
Shahrzad and her father have witnessed many a street protest in Iran.
By far, the demonstrations happening now are the largest since the 1979 overthrowing of the U.S.-backed shah. It's unclear where they'll lead, if anywhere. Shahrzad and her father predict that even if a second election is held, Ahmadinejad will still win, just with a smaller margin.
Even if that comes to pass, nothing can erase the images coming out of Iran. The protests are too widespread to dissolve without impact. The Iranian theocracy, steeped in hostility to modernism and America, must come to terms with the not insignificant part of its population that is demanding its rights.
As much as we'd like it to be different, all we can do is watch.