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Regional Obstacles to Democracy in Iran

1/24/01 Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D.


Democracy in Iran, and its subsets of political pluralism, regular elections, peaceful transfers of power, and separation of powers, have always faced serious challenges both at home and abroad. But, while the domestic obstacles, e.g., backward political culture, are rather well-known and subject of extensive commentary, the external odds or obstacles are either neglected or often reduced to the intervention(s) of great powers and the like, the result being an underdeveloped notion or understanding of the regional sets of problems or obstacles to Iranian democracy.

As a Middle East country straddled between two sub-regions, namely, Persian Gulf and Central/Northwest Asia, Iran is inescapably impacted by the regional context for its home grown democracy. To ignore this would be tantamount to ignoring the organic links between the internal and external dynamics operating for or against the evolution of Iranian democracy.

Presently, the regional dynamics is, unfortunately, largely antithetical to the organic growth of democracy in Iran. For one thing, several of our neighbors have set negative role models adversely influencing the so-called democratization process inside Iran. In both the sub-regions, the absolute majority of Iran's neighbors are either totally undemocratic or, at best, run by weak and unstable democracies. Inevitably, these countries provide reference societies for Iran and, as a result, form so many obstacles to Iranian democracy, which need to be addressed by the protagonists of democracy and pluralism in Iran.

The Persian Gulf

None of Iran's Persian Gulf neighbors even mildly approximate a democratic polity. Thus, while Iraq is run by a personalistic-authoritarian regime averse to genuine elections, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) oligopolies can in the best circumstance be characterized as exclusionary quasi-democratic states The Saudi, Omani, and other Persian Gulf kingdoms have yet to be recipients of any decent wind of change drifting them in democratic directions. For the foreseeable future, these dynastic kingdoms are likely to retain their non-participatory and hereditary form of rule, and one can only imagine their fears and concerns of a full-fledged democracy (democratization) in Iran.

Central Asia-Caucasus

The overall picture in this region is comparatively more mixed, given the republic form of the newly-independent states in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Ghyrghyzstan, Tajikstan, and Turkmenistan, not to mention Russia, Georgia. Yet, as we have learnt during the past decade, the gap between form and content can indeed be a huge one. Almost invariably, the initial sound and fury of republican democracy in these states has been replaced with sober, and somber, realization of the formidable problems posed by ethnic divisions, ideological rifts, border disputes, poverty and backwardness, cult of leaders, etc.

Consequently, all these states can be classified as weak or unstable democracies beset with strong authoritarian counter-trends offsetting the democratic trend. Thus, for example, while Kazakhstan has adopted a life-time presidency, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have opted for a thinly veiled recycling of mild Stalinism, begrudgingly tolerated by the outside world concerned more with pipelines than democratic politics.

There are several important differences between these republics and Iran: None of them ascribes to Iran's theocratic model, and all grapple in some capacity with future self-definition, titling in contrary directions that gives them unstable character. Economically depressed and in a tight survival race, these republics are prone to subversion and erosion of their nascent democratic institutions hitherto preventing meaningful consolidation. Some eighteen coups and attempted coups have marred their brief post-independence history, and while Tajikistan is enflamed by politico-ethnic civil war effectively partitioning the country, both Armenia and Azerbaijan mirror each other in their depth of authoritarian-bureaucratic rule unmasked at election times, when the ugly hands of manipulation show themselves. Impact on Iran

Iran's political process is infected by this poisonous environment, and we have not even bothered to examine the fallout from Pakistani coup and the Taliban phenomenon, wreaking further havoc on the regional prerequisite for democracy in Iran. As a direct result of this, and other intervening domestic variables, the democratic playing field in Iran is covered by the tall grass of obstacles which have so far precluded a smooth play. Today's Iran is best described as a part democratic, part theocratic system congealed together by the fiat of history, so that one somehow reinforces the other.

Sadly, the proponents of Second Khordad Movement have completely failed to understand the nature of this dialectical relationship, looking in one direction only. Perhaps their lenses are polished by Western standards obviating the need to adjust these lenses to the peculiarities of Iran's situated democracy on a minefield of autocracy, drawing too close an analogy between pre and post-revolutionary autocracy.

What is distorted about these interpretations is their unique inability to gauge the present and clear danger of "religious fascism" Ganji has so bravely warned us in his Fascistic Interpretation of Religion. Ganji's fault, however, is his theoretical and historical full embrace of Ayatollah Khomeini combined with subtle attacks on his successor. This is not to mention Ganji's heroic liberalism and its uncritical self-assessment.

What both Ganji and other theoreticians of Second Khordad Movement need to examine more carefully, on the other hand, is precisely the regional sources of democratic (half) reversal in today's Iran.

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