The state versus society in Iran
Democracy in Iran by Ali Gheissari and
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.
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