External Affairs

Iran Can Achieve Democracy Only Through the Route of Revolution

In Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Might Succeed, Misagh Parsa asks why some countries democratise themselves through reform, while others have to take the revolution route.

A member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps stands next to a picture of the Ayatollah. Credit: Reuters

A member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps stands next to a picture of the Ayatollah. Credit: Reuters

In Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Might Succeed, Misagh Parsa, who has written several books on Iran, has undertaken a study of transition to democracy in developing countries. His analysis is concerned with the actual process of democratisation and not whether – and when – a country might transition to democracy. Parsa’s basic thesis is that an authoritarian developing country has two routes to democracy – reform or revolution. Which of these two routes a country takes, depends on several factors.

Parsa, professor at department of sociology, Dartmouth College, raises the question as to why some countries succeed in democratising themselves through reform while others have to go through the destructive route of revolution, and proceeds to suggest a framework for analysing the different paths to democracy by examining the structural and process-related variables. The book seeks to explain why South Korea, for example, managed to establish democracy through a process of reform, that is, comparatively free from violence and bloodshed, and why others such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Egypt, etc, had to take the revolution route, in other words, replacing the existing state structures instead of reforming them. He then examines the developments in Iran in the post-Islamic Revolution of 1979 and concludes that Iran will not achieve democracy through the reform process and can do so only through the route of revolution. However, he does not offer any opinion as to whether Iran will achieve democracy through the revolution route or how long it might take to do so.

Misagh Parsa
Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Might Succeed
Harvard University Press, November 2016

The revolution in Iran was not Islamic. During the months leading up to the revolution and for some time thereafter, Ayatollah Khomeini and other leaders repeatedly made promises – greater economic and political freedom, more rights to women and raising the living standards, especially of the poor and  downtrodden, the mostazafin. By making such promises, the Ayatollahs managed to get the students, the left, the bazaaris, intellectuals as well as women on their side. Khomeini was a charismatic leader. The combination of his charisma and the promises he made to different sections of the society produced a force, which compelled the Shah to abdicate and flee the country. They had said nothing about establishing a theocracy; indeed, they had expressed themselves against religious leaders occupying positions of political power. However, once in power, the clerical leaders proceeded to do exactly what they had said they would not. The ruling elite claimed that the Islamic Republic‘s legitimacy had divine roots, derived from the prophets and the twelfth Imam, and not from the people. The position of the supreme leader was elevated. It was claimed that the supreme leader was the deputy of the Hidden Imam, that his decisions were equivalent to the Prophet’s commands, and eventually to the claim that the faqieh could make no mistakes – reminiscent of the divine rights theory of monarchs long time ago.

The increasingly repressive policies of the regime generated increasing levels of disaffection and passive resistance among the people, which was expressed in various forms. According to the author, the ‘collectivities’ – as he called them – such as students, intellectuals, leftists, women, etc, had met mostly in mosques where they felt it was safe to hold meetings and raise anti-Shah regime campaigns; this did not necessarily mean support for the clerics or for the establishment of an Islamic state. Once the Islamic regime started resorting to suppressing dissent, it affected attendance in mosques. Quoting unnamed government officials in December 2009, the author states that more than half the mosques were inactive. A Revolutionary Guards commander is reported to have lamented as recently as September 2015 that only about 3,000 of the country’s 57,000 Shiite mosques were operational. Furthermore, declining religious observance has led to a shortage of clergy. According to Morteza Moghtedaie, director of seminaries, half the number of mosques lacked clerics and prayer leaders.

The resistance took the form of religious conversion. As the regime consolidated its hold on the economy and enforced social and cultural practices, increasing numbers of Iranians began converting to other religions including Christianity and even Baha’ism. This caused concern among the rulers, serious enough for Ayatullah Khamenei to declare in October 2010 that the enemies of Islam plotted to weaken it by converting people to ‘false’ religions such as Baha’ism. President Hassan Rouhani thought somewhat differently and said in Qom (the heartland of the Shia religion) that reactionary fanaticism and extremism destroyed people’s religion. Christianity has become the preferred religion of conversion; even Qom witnessed conversion, according to the author. Conversion to Baha’ism caused particular alarm among the establishment. Suppression of the Baha’is led a group of social and human rights activists to issue a public document demanding protection of the rights of non-Muslims and called for an investigation of the persecution of the Baha’is.

There are various forms of persecution and suppression such as anti-women, anti-music, anti-art, anti-press freedom that Parsa has described, invariably quoting sources for all his observations. His meticulousness for authenticity is reflected in the fact that the endnotes cover as many as 60 pages.

Author Misgah Parsa. Credit: Twitter

As a general rule, Parsa argues, in authoritarian regimes that reject democracy on ideological grounds, democratisation will take the revolutionary, disruptive route. In Indonesia, for example, Suharto’s anti-democratic ideology rendered democratic opposition ineffective for 32 years, eventually exploding in a revolutionary movement. In South Korea, by contrast, the military leaders never rejected democracy in principle; repression radicalised the student movement but did not completely destroy moderate opposition, eventually facilitating transition to democracy by protests and succeeded in forcing the military to accept constitutional changes and political reforms in 1987. The Islamic Republic, says Parsa, has evolved into one of the most anti-democratic political systems in the world. State ideology, with claims of divine roots and rejection of any role for the people in conferring legitimacy to the system, has reduced cohesion between the state and society, generated irreconcilable conflicts and has made it impossible for Iran to progress to democracy through the reform route.

President Seyyed Mohammad Khatami endeavored to introduce some reforms during the eight years of his rule. He supported the rule of law, freedom of press, greater social and political freedom, and greater democracy through a stronger civil society. He even attempted to check the power of the military, but failed. His successor, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, reintroduced many of the undemocratic practices. Suppression during his presidency was intensified many fold. The power and influence of the Revolutionary Guard increased; many members of his cabinet were from the Guards. According to Parsa, Ahmedinejad’s reign was one of the most corrupt in the Islamic Republic. He cites many examples. Corruption by and within the Revolutionary Guards was at its peak during Ahmedinejad’s eight years of presidency.

Protesters against the Shah in Tehran, 1979. Credit: Reuters

Protesters against the Shah in Tehran, 1979. Credit: Reuters

There is a chapter on the rise and demise of the Green Movement, in which the author documents the large number of fraudulent practices during the election in 2009, which pitted incumbent president Ahmedinejad against former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Mousavi’s campaign, though severely restricted by the ruling regime in many ways, had gathered momentum and large public support. In a novel form of protest, Mousavi’s supporters donned green sashes and created a human chain stretching the entire length of the city. On June 12, the election day, men sprayed their hair in green and flashed green ribbons wrapped around their wrists while women wore green scarves and matching shoes. There were irregularities in the manner of announcing the result of the election that led the demonstrators to demand: ‘what happened to my vote?’. Mousavi’s supporters ignored his advice not to flout the ban on protests and organised a demonstration on June 15, which was one of the largest in modern Iranian history. Ahmedinejad government cracked down ruthlessly on the protesters, ushering in a period of intense suppression and violation of civil and political rights.

The book has only a passing reference to the Iran-Iraq war. The regime was in a way fortunate that the war took place soon after the revolution. Leaving aside the massive destruction and loss of lives, the war was hugely instrumental in mobilising the people on the platform of patriotism and unity, thus enabling the regime to entrench itself. The war also was exploited by the Pasdaran to strengthen their hold on power as well as economy. There is no reference in the book to the nuclear issue or to the sanctions imposed by the United Nations and those unilaterally imposed by America, suggesting that the author regards it as of no consequence to the struggle for democracy. The fact of the matter is that the sanctions had a big negative impact on the lives of the people and did force the regime to make concessions during the negotiations on the nuclear deal. Nor does the author has anything to say about the Rouhani presidency, which had completed its first four-year term by the time the book came out.

As mentioned earlier, Parsa does not claim that his analysis will enable him or other analysts to predict if and when a developing country under authoritarian, anti-democratic regime will transition to democracy. Nonetheless, it would be interesting to indulge in an exercise to apply Parsa’s analysis and framework to other situations, such as some of the ‘stans’ in central Asia, but more importantly to China and Russia. Will China, for example, be ‘reformed’ at some stage and become a democracy, defined by the author as the process of ‘empowering the civilian population vis-à-vis the state, thereby enabling the people to influence and determine government’s structure, personnel and policies? Going by Parsa’s parameters, China is not likely to transition to democracy any time soon. Firstly, China’s ruling establishment has an ideology in theory, but its primary ideology is to remain in power. It has long since given up on communism. The ideology of the Iranian clergy is also to remain in power, but it still pays at least lip service to sharia and hadith. Secondly, the disconnect between the government and civic society is not complete as seems to be the case in Iran. The regime permits tens of thousands of protests, small and large, allowing the people to voice their frustration and unhappiness on various issues so long as there is no overt anti-regime content. Thirdly, China is doing very well economically. Huge masses of population have been brought out of poverty, people have become more prosperous, per capita income has increased. So long as China continues to grow economically, thereby satisfying people’s expectations and desires, not just needs, the regime is assured of retaining power. Then again, unlike in Iran, women in China are fully liberated, perhaps more so than in Western countries, and enjoy equal rights. The recent lifting of the ban on more that one child further empowers women. The Chinese leadership, reversing Gorbachev’s reforms, has resorted to perestroika instead of glasnost and instituted reforms in the economic sphere. There is immense amount of cronyism and corruption but unlike in Iran, the government has launched a determined anti-corruption drive. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a wide base with a membership of nearly 90 million, thereby ensuring enough stake in the continuation of the regime. The resort to hyper nationalism also has the same objective of diverting internal disaffection to external threats and claims of territorial sovereignty, in the same manner that the war with Iraq helped the Islamic regime in Iran. It follows, therefore, that Chinese regime does not, and will not for a long time, face a pro-democracy movement serious enough to challenge its stability and survival

Iran is a very important country for India for many reasons, making Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Might Succeed an important book. It needs to be read by the ‘strategic’ community as well as by those in charge of our national security.