Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr, Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty, Oxford University Press, 2006: pp.214 + xvii
The issue of Middle Eastern democracy is obviously one that is prominent on the mind of almost anyone who has an interest in politics, international affairs or Islam today. While there are at least a pair of functionally stable elected governments in the region, Israel and Turkey, at least one vision of what the United States hoped to accomplish in Iraq was to bring democracy to that country and begin a wave of democratization to the region so that those democratizing movements would become the natural allies of America in the war on terror. Blame for this failure has regularly pointed to Syria and Iran, and there has been open talk of forcing regime change in Iran.
Gheissari and Nasr’s book attempts to make the case that Iran is already, under its own power, well on its way to democratization, and by implication (though by no means explicitly) suggests that intervention and meddling in Iranian affairs by foreign powers will be counter-productive on this matter. The book traces the political history of Iran through the 20th century focusing on the internal political players and the ebb and flow of those forces. The role of foreign power is acknowledged – the United States, England, the Soviet Union/ Russia, China, etc. – but they only feature as minor characters in the narrative, e.g., the role of the United States in the 1953 coup is mentioned, but not detailed; instead the focus is on the political setting and the tensions that made American intervention possible and outlines who benefited from that intervention.
If foreign players are relegated to minor roles, then, as one might suspect, the major characters in the story are the Pahlavis, the Ulema, the bazaar and to a lesser degree left and liberal intelligentsia. The plot as it is outlined by the authors is simple but compelling. Iran, they argue, is unlike any other colonial or post-colonial state and therefore has a unique dynamic rooted in a very long history and pride concerning its Persian identity and its role as the protector of Shi’a Islam. It is the only country, they argue, to have undergone a genuinely fundamentalist Islamic Revolution and have, since then, passed on to a largely post-fundamentalist position within the culture at large. What has driven Iranian politics through the long twentieth century, which is still underway in Iran insofar as they remain within this dynamic, is the tension between the need to modernize the Iranian state and the need to democratize the state. “Modern Iranian politics has been shaped by the continuous struggle between, on the one hand, the ideals of freedom and rule of law and, on the other, the demand for stability, order, development and the kind of state that can provide them” (23).
From the standpoint of the authors, the official leaders of Iran have been more effective in providing modernization than freedom. And this is no accident. For the Pahlavis, already, it was clear that modernization had to be achieved by a government that could quickly and flexibly act, and thus act in a unilateral manner. Reza Khan quickly consolidated power by demonstrating that given greater authority, given a reinterpretation of the 1906 constitution, he could mobilize the economic resources of the country and achieve substantial improvements in the standard of living, industrial capacity and infrastructure of Iran. Initially this development found support amongst the Ulama, who saw the rise of Reza Khan as a reinstitution of public order, and a protective measure securing the realm of the Shi’a. But ultimately this was not the way in which Reza Khan interpreted himself. The security of Iran lay in modernization, and for this to be accomplished the monarchy needed to assert its autonomy from all forces that would slow it down, including the Ulama.
What made the later Revolution interesting, then, was the extent to which the Revolution, led by the Ulama and supported by the left-intelligentsia, was a revolution against a very successful campaign on the part of the monarchy over a fifty year period (not all of them smooth of course) to improve the economic lives of Iranians. When one administered the Reagan-test, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”, the vote should have undoubtedly come down in favor of the Pahlavi-state. Yet, the Revolution did happen and it happened because in the process of achieving this wonderful economic development, the Pahlavi-state lost its ability to represent people of Iran, i.e., the people of Iran did not see the Pahlavis as representing their own concerns.
This can be seen in the manner in which the Revolution rallied around Islam to protest the secular Pahlavi government. This turned out to be much more than a pragmatic stance, and eventually, as we know, Khomeni was able to secure Supreme Leader of the Revolution and the Ulama found itself at the head of the Iranian state. The Revolution then instituted a new set of laws based upon its interpretation of Islam, laws and practices which were enforced by unofficial powers associated with the Revolution and the local mosque.
In many ways, while the Revolution did represent a kind of democratic change in Iran, it, at the same time, set back state building and severely set back economic development. Most obvious, perhaps, is that foreign business was either no longer welcome, or did not feel comfortable investing resources in unstable Iran. But not as obvious was the fact that the Revolution itself developed a kind of allergy to the institutional state and so failed to develop new political bodies to administer revolutionary policies. Instead the mosque worked alongside or, sometimes, in competition with, older political institutions left over from the Pahlavi regime.
Eventually though, after the war with Iraq ended, the Ulama found itself needing to concentrate once again on economic development for a society that had sacrificed a great deal and found itself in dire straits. It was at this point that the Ulama followed the lead of the Pahlavis and began a full-scale consolidation of institutional power, overcoming its allergy to political organization. Yet, interestingly, the authors argue that this did not completely undermine the democratic impulse of the Revolution itself. While the Supreme Leader remained untouchable and unquestionable in his political decisions, nonetheless there was also the organization and gradual spread of democratic elections at the local and national level. This has created a situation, according to the authors, in which the people of Iran now expect and have to a large degree internalized democratic values. The democratization of the Iranian people has been achieved by factions of the Ulama itself (while there are groups within the Ulama that are very resistant to it, including the Supreme Leader). Gheissari and Nasr themselves believe that this can continue and must be allowed to continue, while the pressure against the Ulama by foreign powers, and the threat of military action against Iran, just as during the hard days of the war against Iraq, simply rallies the people, who otherwise wish to see democratic change, around the Ulama in a nationalistic surge.
The book has limits of course, as every such narrative must, and none of them take away from this reader's enjoyment and willingness to recommend the book. For the most part those limits serve to reinforce other aspects of the writing which are very positive. By largely marginalizing the narrative influence of European powers on the development of Iran, the authors in fact are much more capable of providing a picture of the issues internal to Iran as a state, that have contributed to its development. In other words, the authors have, because of their decision, been able to provide a very convincing description of the development and tensions present within the Iranian political consciousness; they have told an Iranian story. Foreign influences are narratively marginalized because they are precisely that in the mind of Iranians: foreign.
The one genuinely problematic limit that I find with the book is the failure, especially in the long introduction, to define democracy. One of the things they emphasize is the variety of ways in which “democracy” has been used in Iran at various times: many of them quite illiberal. But if, as they suggest, the goal in Iran, the necessity in Iran if there is to be a legitimate state, ought to be the promotion of democratic institutions, then it must be made clear what democracy means. Now they are clearly not the only ones to blame. Democracy is a term that is very much thrown around these days without anyone taking the time to define it; everyone relies on its apparent self-evidence and the shared presumption that democracy must be a good thing. But one can fairly ask that two scholars in positions of influence take the time to specify what it is that is truly being sought under the banner of “democracy” in order not simply to help us better understand Iran, but to better understand our own categories of interpretation in a time when that category in particular has become the justification for a great deal of violence and bloodshed.