Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Road to Iranian Democracy

Published in Law and Liberty on April 9, 2018


Democracy values human life; and the goal of democratization is to transition from a system of categorical inequalities where human life is cheap and disposable, to one that respects it. Iran has been on that journey since the Constitutional Revolution that took place there from 1905 to 1911. The road has been fraught with obstacles. Iranians have not yet attained their aspirations.

Misagh Parsa’s Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Might Succeed focuses on the stretch of the journey since the revolution of 1979 but also weighs the factors that lead to democratization via revolution, versus those that lead to democratization via reform. The book is a comparative analysis of South Korea’s successful democratization through reform and the democratization through revolution of Egypt, Tunisia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. After a thorough examination of the 1979 revolution, the reformist Green Movement, and the now almost 40 years of the Islamic Republic’s rule of Iran, Parsa concludes, academically and dispassionately, that the democratization of Iran can only happen through revolution.

The professor of sociology at Dartmouth College writes that the choice between reform and revolution may depend on “the nature of the conflicts, the historical possibilities, and the available options. The conditions and variables examined in this work point conclusively in one direction—that is, that a route to Iran’s democratization through reform is not available.”

A great deal of the analysis centers on Sayyid Ruhollah Mūsavi Khomeini (Ayatolla Khomeini), and rightly so. Only by understanding how Ayatollah Khomeini’s ideology is inscribed in the Islamic Republic’s very core, can we truly understand the struggle for democracy in Iran. What Parsa shows early on is that the majority of Iranians who mobilized for revolution in 1979 were not seeking a theocratic state. This is why the dissection of what Ayatollah Khomeini did and said is so crucial.

Parsa recounts that before the revolution, Khomeini “repeatedly assured Iranians of the freedom of the press and of expression.” He emphasized democratic government, said that “force and repression are not the means to progress,” and promised political freedom and civil liberties for all. “Islamic democracy will be more perfect than Western democracy,” he said. He promised that religious minorities would be free to worship as they saw fit. During his years in exile, he continually claimed Islam was for freedom, and repeatedly denied any aspirations to power. The clergy would be guides to the leaders but would not “run the government.” After his return to Iran—February 1, 1979—and during that first year, he “declared that clerics should not become presidents.”

Nor did he make clear, before the revolution, the nature of his “radical theocratic and doctrinal views. Clerics and clerical students who supported him knew nothing about such concepts or his plans.” Even members of his inner circle in Paris “were completely bewildered after the revolution when they first heard of the concept of velayat-e faghieh,” an Islamic tradition of clerical guardianship of the weak and orphaned within a community. Khomeini reconceptualized this doctrine to make it possible for a cleric to assume political and religious authority over the entire country.

As soon as Khomeini took power, Parsa tells us, the revolution was turned on its head. Now democracy was to be rejected “because it had a Western dimension.” The clergy consigned women to second-class status. (Years later his successor, Ayatollah Khameini, would declare that gender equality was a Western invention and had no place in Islam.) Khomeini influenced the new constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a document that created the role of Supreme Leader—the nation’s highest leadership position reserved for clerics only, thus integrating religion with politics. The Supreme Leader controls all branches of the government with theocratic authoritarian power.

And thus began a new regime of political and ideological repression. Political opponents were killed or imprisoned; newspapers were shut down; faculty and students who did not support the Islamic Republic were purged, and universities were closed for almost two years after the revolution. Human capital was lost as many educated Iranians fled the country. The clergy under Khomeini weakened the labor movement by forbidding labor strikes and dissolving workers’ groups. Policies were designed to Islamize Iran’s education system and other social institutions. Khomeini and his allies established the Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah in Iran (Lebanon’s Hezbollah began a few years later, in 1982, with support from Iran) to extinguish all opposition to the regime. Opposition was deemed “enmity against God.”

Along with political monopoly came corruption. Parsa traces the regime’s economic history and demonstrates that, unlike in South Korea, the new Iranian political regime failed to industrialize, remaining as dependent on oil as was pre-revolutionary Iran. The 1979 revolution gave rise to “a new economic elite composed of the ruling clergy and the Revolutionary Guard. These twin pillars of the Islamic regime controlled the commanding heights of Iran’s economy.”

Yet another mark of the Islamic Republic is the criminalization of sin. The regime compels virtue and restrains vice through the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij (a paramilitary organization). The legislation of morality, through the regulation of drinking, dancing, music, dress, and other personal liberties, has led to many forms of passive resistance. People defy these laws routinely, they watch satellite television, drink alcohol, convert to other religions, defy the hijab, engage in premarital sex, cohabitate, listen to forbidden music, and neglect obligatory prayer and mosque attendance. In all these ways, writes Parsa, Iranians “resisted a compulsory path to paradise.” They were responding to the politicization of every facet of life.

Before the waves of protest that arose late last year (my Law and Liberty post about them is here), no stronger challenge to the regime’s legitimacy had been mounted than the Green Movement, which reached its peak in 2009. Parsa tracks its “rise and demise.” That year, the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ran for reelection against Mir Sossein Mousavi, who had been the prime minister of Iran from 1981 to 1989. Ahmadinejad enjoyed the support of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini, the Revolutionary Guard, and the Basij. Khameini and Ahmadinejad began a fresh round of intimidation and repression, for the regime had no intention of allowing anyone other than the latter to win the election—especially not a reformer like Mousavi, whose wife was a vocal proponent of rights for women.

Text messaging throughout the country was blocked the day before the vote, signs for political rallies were removed, posters torn down, and police attempted to “prevent reform supporters from wearing green.” Mousavi’s campaign headquarters were isolated as telephone landlines were disconnected and websites shut down. Opposition activists were arrested. Government agents occupied newspaper offices and forced the printing of pro-government headlines.

Parsa recounts what happened on election day and the 20 months following it. Voter turnout that day was unprecedented, as 85 percent of the voting population went to the polls—but to no avail, as the government declared Ahmadinejad the victor. The reformists rejected the outcome, and fraud was suspected by all. Broad segments of the population were outraged and new waves of protests began. During the ensuing months, with each new wave, the Islamic Republic countered with massive repression. Parsa writes that although the Green Movement “shook the foundation of the Islamic Republic like no other event in the thirty years since the revolution,” the movement failed for four reasons: “insufficient leadership and lack of preparation, a disjunction between leadership and protesters, limited solidarity structures, and the failure to consolidate and form a broad, disruptive coalition.”

The regime’s containment of the Green Movement had two major consequences: It further radicalized the population against their government, and manifested the wide ideological gulf between the elite and the Iranian people. Although the author doesn’t quite put it this way, the foundational reason that leads him to conclude that democratization cannot be achieved by reforming the system from within is the unbridgeable religious and ideological gap between the Islamic Republic and its people.

There is no smooth or gradual path that could lead to relinquishment of the regime’s claim to divine legitimacy. The Iranian constitution, in its Article 56, declares that man has the “divine right” to be “master of his own social destiny,” and that this right cannot be subordinated “to the vested interests of a particular individual or group.” Clearly the regime has ignored this in practice, but moreover, the entire concept is inconsistent with the theological ontology the Republic has given itself. As Parsa says, “By declaring the Islamic regime to be divine and its preservation to be a paramount obligation, Khomeini himself set the stage for irreconcilable conflicts.” It is these irreconcilable conflicts that prevent democratization via reform and make him believe that only another revolution—a wholesale replacement of the existing institutions and political structures, and the theocratic constitution—could effect the will of the long-suffering Iranian people.

Democracy in Iran is meticulous, bordering at times on repetitive. Yet it is a compelling description of the paths of democratization in developing countries, and of the Iranian situation in particular.

Luma Simms, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has written on the life and thought of immigrants for First Things, the Federalist, and many other publications.

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