Iranian Democracy Is Older Than You Think

I appreciate Andrew Sullivan’s series of links on the Iranian election (both today and over the last week or so).  So I don’t want to be too harsh here but this sticks in my craw a bit.

Andrew writes:

All reports suggest a massive turn-out in Iran, itself an indication of democracy’s potential there.

Democracy and even democratic culture is not ‘potentially there’.  There is and has been a real democratic culture in Iran for some time.  Like other democratic elections some years are more compelling than others (say in the US 2008 versus 1996).  There’s also potential for fraud (see US 2000).  The potential that lies in Iran is that it could very easily become the first secular liberal (rule of law) democracy in the Muslim Middle East.  The democracy that exists there is simply subsumed by an illiberal parasitic theocratic authoritarian state.  But within the relative levels it has, the Iranian democracy usually functions as a democracy.  Ahmadinejad for example got a number of his cabinet appointees shot down by the Iranian Parliament who refused to confirm them–and it stuck.  If the clerical authoritarian state were to fall, the already existing democratic/liberal frame could rise to the surface in Iran.  Compare the Iranian situation to say the Palestinians who also have a strong democratic culture but set within a completely illiberal framework (that’s not imposed by a clerical regime but just is the water it swims in, whether Fatah or Hamas).

Maybe liberal democracy is what Andrew means, and if so then we agree.  But I’m not entirely sure.  It may seem like I’m hairsplitting but I’m not.  It’s very important that the West grasp that if the Reformers win, that doesn’t automatically mean they will be pro-Western (or pro-US policy in the region).  They could still go for a nuclear deterrent capacity and want talks at the same time as relaxing in some areas and opening up in others.  I think Andrew still has a little too much of his neo-con left in him.

Update I: (Day Later).  See my followup (mini)post on the elections.

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14 thoughts on “Iranian Democracy Is Older Than You Think

  1. Chris – I took the liberty of un-mini-posting this. It’s worthy of the main column methinks and perhaps overkill on the small column. Feel free to change it back if you want.

    Re: the post itself…I just want to thank you for continuing to bring sanity and, well, knowledge to the ME discussion. So many assumptions abound. Misinformation is far too common.

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  2. The potential that lies in Iran is that it could very easily become the first secular liberal (rule of law) democracy in the Muslim Middle East.

    I’m curious to know where Turkey and Iraq fit into that statement. Either way, I don’t think anyone can say that Iran is any less democratic than any of the other Gulf states.

    What does it mean, looking at Turkey and Iran (taking Iraq off the table for the moment) that the Middle East’s two most liberal democratic states are primarily non-Arab? Does it mean anything at all?

    I think you make an important distinction about democracy (mechanisms and institutions of) and liberal democracy (the former with liberalism). It’s not hair-splitting if it’s the distinction between DINO’s or Democracies in Name Only and a functioning representative/democratic government.

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  3. Kyle,

    Well depends on whether you consider Turkey part of the Middle East. But Turkey is certainly right now the farthest along. They even have an Islamist party in power who has not set up some extra-democratic judiciary (a la Iran). They’ve weathered the storm of the near coup by the ideologically secularist anti-religious military. Still the country oppresses its minority religious groups (esp. Orthodox Christians) and still won’t ‘fess up to the genocide of the Armenians.

    The other country we might point to is Indonesia. Their current president who looks like he is headed to a landslide re-election has taken the wind out of the sails of the Islamists by running on anti-corruption, one of their main themes.

    Iraq–minus Kurdistan–I see headed the way of a neo-strongman. That or the country splits up completely. Kurdistan looks to be headed in a kind of technocratic one-party competent quasi-mafia state a la Singapore. With more economic freedom in theory eventually leading more to greater political freedom.

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  4. I think what Sullivan is referrring to is the simple fact that Iran is NOT a democracy, but a theocracy. Just because it has elections and a President and a Parliament does not make it a democracy, if the actual power of the state is in the hands of other people – the clergy – who are not subject to democratic elections at all, by the very Constitution of the state. The elected officials in Iran simply cannot override the clergy, by law. They serve at the will of the clergy, who must approve their decisions and policies. And, of course, only clergy-approved political parties and politicians are even allowed to run for office. So I’m not sure where you get off with this notion that Iran has had a real democratic culture for a long time. It hasn’t. It has had a theocratic culture that permits limited elections of limited officials with limited power. That’s not a democratic culture, it’s theocracy. This could of course lead to a genuine democratic culture if there is increasing insistence that the clergy be removed from overseeing and having ultimate power over the process, but this is not going to happen very easily, in that Iran is simply not a democracy, but a theocracy. So far, not even the opposition parties in Iran are suggesting any such thing. If they did, they would be oulawed and their leaders jailed. Hardly a sign of a country that already has has a real democratic culture for a long time. It’s never had any such thing.

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  5. conradg,

    i would say the proof is in the pudding (or in this case in the street protests). Namely I think Iran has had a real democratic culture lying under the weight of an oligarchy and the proof is evidenced by this campaign. Of course candidates are vetted–including Mousavi–but that didn’t stop people rabidly supporting and all the rest.

    And the actual practice of Iranian politics is much more complex than a simple the clerics overrule everything. Of course they can but don’t always. The President for example has serious powers in domestic affairs.

    The reason the clerics have known better than to involve themselves all the time (even if they could) is that it hurts their image. Trampling upon what small level of democracy there was/is in Iran has shown that their fears were legitimate. And whatever level of democracy we qualify Iran as having, people are willing to go to the streets and risk serious injury for it.

    For sure it’s not a liberal democracy. But I don’t think it’s right to say it isn’t a democracy–unless we are assuming democracy is a liberal democracy. I don’t equate the two. Lots of places in the world use democratic (vote gathering) proceduralism and elect strongman, tyrants, or illiberal regimes. It still at minimum is practicing some form of democracy–again just not a liberal (rule of law) one.

    We would still classify the US as a democracy even during the large majority of its history when women couldn’t vote, Senators weren’t directly elected, indigenous people were forced onto reservations had no ballots, and black people were either enslaved or under Jim Crow and were similarly vote-less.

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  6. Chris,

    I don’t know what fantasy world you are living in, but a violent revolution is hardly the sign of a democratic culture. Quite the opposite. Of course the desire for democracy is there, but the current governmental structure in Iran is the obstacle, not the means. The events of these past few days shows precisely that there is no real democracy in Iran, unless people take to the streets in violent revolution. To say that the clerics in Iran are reluctant to interfere with the politics of Iran is simply insipid. The clerics run the show. They are the ones behind this decision to steal the election. They have interferred with every election, just not so blatantly. Now it’s getting obvious they have overplayed their hand, and must either use brute violent to put down the opposition, or roll over and die. None of that is a sign of a democratic culture – yet. Sullivan was simply right, you are simply wrong, but too stubborn to admit it. There is hope for a democratic government in Iran some day – maybe even soon if miracles happen – but it certainly isn’t the case yet.

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  7. con,

    again we need to make a distinction between before and after friday. this is a watershed moment in the country. there was some form of democracy in the history of Iran since the Revolution. It was illiberal–or rather was combined with an illiberal autocracy.

    that is now in the process of being destroyed by a hardline totalitarian coup. this is a watershed moment in the country’s history. so it’s not really right to judge what has gone before by what is occurring now. the two–the democratic part and the totalitarian part–always existed in a strange dance. Of course there have always been crackdowns and arrests on pro-democracy folks, but the scale now is pretty unprecedented. And there has never been an election so obviously fraudulent. Ever.

    And to refer to ‘the clerics’ as a unified force I think is also incorrect. A number of clerics backed Mousavi. And it is very possible, and I think perhaps the best explanation, that this is a coup lead from inside the Revolutionary Guards in some manner as a reaction against the conservative oligarchic establishment (e.g. vs. Rafsanjani, Khatami, etc.). What is unclear is the status of Khamenei. Was he behind it? Or was his hand forced?

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  8. Chris,

    Autocracies, monarchies, theocracies, and dictatorships in the modern era frequently allow “democratic elections” to placate their subjects. The Russian Czars allowed the Duma, it did not make Russia a “democratic culture”. That Iran has a constitutional theocracy that gives the clergy supreme power over all policy and culture can’t be questioned by any sane person. That it allows a limited democratic process to procede within that theocratic framework is also clear. But to pretend that this limited form of democracy, completely overseen and controlled by the clergy, is some kind of democratic culture that is suddenly being overturned by a “coup” is absurd. There has never been a democratic culture in Iran. Friday did not end such a culture. It is merely an attempt to continue the clerical control of Iran by some rather crude means, in the face of “reformists” who had the nerve to actually win an election against the will of the clergy’s favorite candidates. There’s no question that Kameini is approving of this falsification of the election. If he wanted to end Achmadinejad’s electoral “coup”, one word out of his mouth would be sufficient to do that. Why? Because Iran is a theocracy, not a democracy. Everyone in Iran knows this. They don’t have the illusion you seem to be operating under, that until friday Iran was some kind of democratic society that is suddenly being overturned by sore losers in a “free” election. The election process in Iran has never been free, and it’s never been terribly important either, since elected officials have no power to actually set policy on their own, they must get the approval of the clergy who actually run the show.

    Now, this could certainly change, and if anything changed on friday it was the emergence of a democratic movement that might, just might, have a chance of overthrowing the existing order and actually creating some kind of new, much more democratic one. It would require rewriting the Iranian constitution, however. That would see the possible emergence of a genuinely democratic culture in Iran, rather than the sham elections which have been the rule since, well, since forever, really.

    The truth about Khamenei is that he always despised Mousavi and his reformist agenda. It’s both a personal and political rivalry. The mistake here may be Khamenei’s, however. He may have overreached, and by giving his tacit assent to the stealing of this election, he may have jeopardized the legitimacy of his own rule over Iran. Now, if Achmadinejad falls, it may mean that Khamenei falls also. And maybe the whole clerical system. But that’s a very optimistic outlook, and I’m not sure I’d bet on it. It depends on how widespread and deep the disatisfaction with this system and the people who run it is.

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  9. conradg,

    thanks for the post.

    I would say there is some question Khamenei is behind it. I wonder if what has happened is that the military has pulled a coup and we should really question whether Khamenei/allied clerics really are in control. Or whether they have become puppets.

    It could be Khamenei was in on it. Even behind it. We’ll see. Right now it’s all in a state of flux so we’ll have to wait til it reaches some new equilibrium. But I would not be surprised if this signals the end of the theocratic part of Iran and turns it into just an all out totalitarian militarized state.

    On the other point, we just disagree. Of course other governments like say Jordan or Bahrain have elections and parliaments, and they are almost entirely meaningless. But the Iranian population overall I’m very convinced has a higher level of education, better connection to new media, a young highly urban population who though they are angry towards US policy would generally be pro-American. This is quite different than the Duma under the Czars.

    Again the only point I can say about a nascent/decently built up sense of democracy is that looked what they pulled off in terms of rallies and the rest. Obviously elections do not a democracy (entirely) make. But I wouldn’t dismiss them so easily either. Particularly in a largely illiberal world currently and definitely as compared to their neighborhood.

    Something like what just took place in Iran could not have happened in Egypt or Jordan or Morocco or Niger or Kazakstan or any number of countries I could name.

    I think I’m using the term democratic culture to refer to the underground movement and you are using it to refer specifically to the government. I think that’s maybe where the disagreement/disconnect lies.

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  10. Maybe the easiest way what I’m trying to get across is to put it this way. Imagine the clerical regime fell tomorrow. There would be an entire apparatus, complete with leaders, a movement, infrastructure, technology, that could take over as a secular liberal democracy the day after in Iran. I call that for lack of a better term, a democratic culture.

    If Mubarak fell in Egypt tomorrow, there is no such organized group. Other than the Muslim Brotherhood but they would not install a liberal democracy. Likely a new strongman would come to power.

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  11. That’s a nice fantasy, but simply not the case in Iran. There is no liberal democracy that would suddenly just take over in Iran, any more than Kerensky’s people were able to maintain a democracy in Russia. There’s real opposition in Iran to the very idea of having a liberal democracy, just as there was in Russia, just as there is in Egypt. Iran might be a bit further down the road to democracy, but it’s far from there yet. You don’t even take into account the simple fact that even Mousavi is not aiming to replace the theocratic power of the clergy. He did not run against the clergy, he ran in favor of continuing clerical rule. He just wanted to be the guy who is elected to the limited Presidency in a country that is ruled by the theocratic clergy. So even the people you say are the vanguard of liberal democracy in Iran don’t advocate liberal democracy, but clerical theocracy with a limited role for elected officials. You tried comparing this to early American democracy, but this too falls apart. Whatever the limitations America has had on who is eligible to vote, there has never been any provision for supreme political power to be invested in any class of people who are unelected or unappointed by elected officials. The Iranian “democrats”, for the most part, are not urging the creation of an actual democracy, today, tomorrow, or next year. At least not openly.

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