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    Middle East
     Sep 23, 2006
The state versus society in Iran
Democracy in Iran by Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr
Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Iran is unique in the Middle East for possessing social ingredients that portend evolution of genuine democracy. The 1979 revolution's zeal for an idealized Islamic order made Iran an improbable candidate for the flowering of democracy, but over the past three decades, Iranians participated in elections, believed in the efficacy of their votes to affect politics, and grew to understand the fundamental logic of democracy. Yet with sovereignty vested in God and the supreme leader remaining unelected, Iran is not quite a democratic state.

This new book by two respected Iranian academics explains how the country has struggled to balance state-building (for solving socio-economic and national security dilemmas) with democracy-building (for empowering society and reducing state power).

Iran's vulnerability to foreign intervention since the 19th century motivated the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties as well as the ayatollahs to justify sacrificing civil liberties and democratic rights to deal with external enemies. The goals of national integration and development were pursued by successive regimes by means of dictating to society.

The other roadblock to opening up the political system was ideology - leftist and Islamic fundamentalist - of which Iranians have progressively become wary. The realization since 1997 that "Islam is part of the problem and not the solution" (p 9) yielded slogans for simple democracy in place of "Islamic democracy". More Iranians today want a plain republic instead of an Islamic republic.

Arbitrary rule and political decay, coinciding with British and Russian designs to dominate Iran's economy, led to the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 and the country's first parliamentary system. The ideals of that revolution were enunciated by intellectuals in secret societies, but acquired broad support among ordinary people through the medium of the ulama (clerics) who were troubled with threats to the Shi'ite realm.

The constitution granted broad powers of oversight to the ulama, who would ensure that all legislation was in accordance with Islamic law. Contrary to liberalism's "society of citizens", the ulama wished to retain Iran as a "society of believers". Constitutionalism was contradictorily a movement not only of protecting civil rights, but also of preserving the rights of the nation. An important strand of the reform movement desired centralization of power in state institutions that would make governance more effective - the antithesis of political freedoms for society.

Outbreaks of tribal insurgencies and weakness to forestall foreign penetration reflected the plight of the constitutional order from 1911-21. Disintegrative challenges and chaos shifted attention from democracy to state consolidation. The 1921 coup by Brigadier Reza Khan (later Shah Pahlavi) stepped into the political vacuum and sought to shift the balance of power within the constitution from the legislature to the executive. A broad segment of Iran's population accepted the sequence of "first order and progress, then democracy" (p 38).

The Pahlavi state subsumed the desire for democracy under the drive for national development. Kemalism - state control over economy, politics and culture - rather than constitutional monarchy was the new model of government. Reza Pahlavi conceived himself as an agent of modernization and concentrated on "developmentalism" by fostering a bureaucratic state and industrial economy in lieu of the rule of law. "Reza Shah served only the demand for stability and progress, ignoring justice and democracy" (p 43). Iran warded off decay, but unbridled empowerment of the executive culminated in authoritarianism that inevitably reintroduced the ideal of democracy into circulation.

After Reza Shah's British-imposed abdication in 1941 in favor of his son, political forces suppressed by the erstwhile king - merchants, liberals, religious activists and communists - returned to center stage along with the parliament. During the democratic interlude (1941-53), the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party mobilized Iranians in the name of justice, but its "totalitarian addiction" helped to later restore monarchical autocracy.

Mohammed Mosaddeq's National Front came to symbolize democratic ideals in the face of state power, though he did not advocate individual rights as understood in today's parlance. Militant ulama, particularly ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the Fedayeen-e-Islam, put forward ideological resistance to Pahlavi rule by inciting disruptions and tensions, forcing the monarchy "to rely on foreign support for its consolidation of power" (p 50).

Concerted action by an alliance among the monarchy, the Iranian military, the United States and Britain toppled Mosaddeq's government in 1953 on the pretext of an imminent communist takeover. Shah Mohammed Pahlavi and his allies resented Mosaddeq's insistence that parliament was supreme and that the monarch was bound by constitutional restrictions.

From 1954, democracy was reduced to a dead letter. Relying on US aid, the shah banned political parties, weakened civil society and curtailed the parliament. As a reprise, "democracy and development came to be viewed as mutually exclusive, and the former would have to be kept at bay as state-building proceeded" (p 55).

The White Revolution reforms of 1963 expanded the size of the Iranian middle class, who ironically showed little support for the monarchy. The religious establishment gravitated en masse to an anti-Pahlavi stance as modernization went on, thanks to Khomeini's rulings that enfranchisement of women and land reforms were "un-Islamic". Radicalization of the opposition and state use of violence in suppressing it increased the power of the security apparatuses in the late 1960s.

The oil boom of the 1970s converted Iran into a rentier state, relieving government of accountability to society and further eroding the shah's legitimacy. The regime compelled Iranians to join the new one-party system, but urban dissidents used the networks created by this opening to escalate opposition. Khomeini skillfully avoided discussion of his theory of an Islamic state and trained the attention of the disparate anti-state elements on the Pahlavi monarchy. The tilt toward religion in the revolutionary coalition did not bode well for the prospects of democracy after the 1979 overthrow of the shah.

The revolution ultimately shored up state power and expanded its reach into society. The "Islamic Leviathan" of Iran fit the model of post-revolutionary authoritarianism in Russia and China by empowering militant actors and downgrading liberal democratic values. The new constitution provided for elections "because the more sizable lower and lower middle classes favored the fundamentalists" (p 92).

The modern middle classes, who were the social base of the pro-democracy forces, were silenced or crushed with a heavy hand. Khomeini used the US Embassy hostage crisis and the war with Iraq to portray pro-democracy forces as stooges of Western imperialism stoking internal disunity in Iran.

Ali-Akbar Rafsanjani's two presidential terms (1989-97) were periods of significant "developmentalist" state-building with parallels to the Pahlavi era. When faced with conservative pressure from the revolutionary old guard, Rafsanjani compromised and even undertook policies counter to the demands of development. Clerics resistant to full-fledged privatization of the economy attacked the government on ideological grounds and constrained Rafsanjani's streamlining efforts. Mercantile capitalism staged a comeback in these years and the middle class again expanded in number, engendering a renewed interest in democracy.

The government strengthened higher education to meet the need for skilled personnel, but the leap in size of university student communities laid the ground for an important vehicle of democracy debates. Abdol-Karim Soroush and his intellectual followers formulated a critique of theocracy and the prominence of the ulama in state affairs.

Devolution of power to provincial and municipal authorities changed the balance in relations between the center and the periphery and encouraged greater pluralism. Greater reliance on tax income compelled the state to negotiate with society over representation and political participation. Private-sector growth shaped a new urban political culture that rebelled against repressive Islamic moral codes. The values of the secular social stratum moved to the forefront of political dissent.

Mohammed Khatami's election as president in 1997 inaugurated a pro-democracy movement with official sanction for the first time in Iranian history and raised the tantalizing possibility of power being shared with civil society. Relaxations on freedom of press, speech and expression reshaped the style and content of Iranian politics.

Conservative backlash via the supreme leader, Seyyed Ali Khamenei, quickly put paid to hopes of a long Prague Spring. Between 1997 and January 2004, the Guardian Council vetoed 111 of Khatami's 297 bills. Persecution of reformists and intellectuals went into full gear, and Khatami was forced to concede that "Islam cannot be separated from Iranian politics" (p 139).

By 2004, a "New Conservatism" emerged on the platforms of strong government to improve the condition of the economy. It wove relationships of patronage with the private sector and entrenched itself in decision-making circles. Positing Reza Shah and East Asian guided democracies as prototypes, "the demand for democracy was resisted with emphasis on good governance and development" (p 143).

The 2005 presidential election brought to power the hardline conservative populist Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who rode on socio-economic grievances of the lower classes and disadvantaged provinces. Reformist candidates ignored the poor and targeted the urban middle classes with the carrots of cultural freedoms, civil-society activism and improvement of women's status. Ahmadinejad's promises of wealth distribution, maintenance of state subsidies, militant Islamic socialism and a "Third Worldist foreign policy" won the day.

The verdict of the 2005 election was, for the umpteenth time, to strengthen the state at the expense of society. However, authors Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr point that since votes from small towns and poorer provinces determined the electoral outcome, it underscored increasing decentralization of Iranian politics. The challenge before the pro-democracy forces in the future is to relate the social pressures for socio-economic deliverance with the traditional liberal agenda of individual rights, or "in other words, to build bridges between the middle and lower classes" (p 158).

The authors of this dense work of political analysis do not prescribe any specific policy line for the international community toward promoting Iran's home-bred democratic movement. One cannot help concluding from a panoramic distillation of history that the more threats and coercive tactics Iran faces on account of the current nuclear standoff, the stronger will be the weight of state superiority over society. Keeping hands off Iran may be the best bet for the US administration's professed aim of "democratizing" the Middle East.

Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty by Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr. Oxford University Press, New York, 2006. ISBN: 0-19-518967-1. Price: US$29.95; 214 pages.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)
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