The Quest for Democracy in Iran: A Century of Struggle against Authoritarian Rule

The Quest for Democracy in Iran: A Century of Struggle against Authoritarian Rule

by Joseph Croitoru

The Iranian-American political scientist Fakhreddin Azimi has written a study of Iranian parliamentary democracy. It shows that, for over a hundred years, the country’s representative assembly has repeatedly suffered from the same kind of difficulties. Joseph Croitoru has read the book

Attempts at democracy in Iran were already being quashed with violence a hundred years ago. In August 1908, Shah Mohammed Ali ordered the bombardment by artillery of the Iranian parliament, which had only been constituted two years earlier, and the imprisonment of many of its members.

But it didn’t take long for the country’s pro-constitution movement to win the struggle for the establishment of parliamentary democracy. After the setback of 1908, it quickly reorganised and was able to offer a military response in 1909.

The Shah was deposed and his son, a minor, was placed on the throne, with a regent holding the real power. The development, which became known to history as the Iranian Constitutional Revolution, had its spontaneous beginnings in early 1906, when two prominent sugar dealers were publicly whipped at the command of the governor of Tehran.

Hedonism and corruption of the ruling dynasty

Back then – and the parallels with the current situation are clear – it was the people in the cities who rebelled. Their opponents were the regime of the royal Qajar dynasty.

Fahkreddin Azimi holds the view that the dynasty owed its hold on power less to its despotic violence, as some orientalists believe, than to a complex network of relationships which assured it the loyalty of local tribal leaders, whom it also knew how to play off against each other.

All the same, this strategy could not prevent Iran’s “Quest for Democracy” (as Azimi’s book about the last century of Iranian politics is called).

To be sure, the democratic movement in the country profited from the people’s hatred of the hedonism and corruption of the ruling dynasty, but its real impulse was the awareness that Iran’s problems of economic failure and the oppressive presence on Iranian territory of the Russian and British imperial powers could only be dealt with by a common effort.

Open conflict with conservative clergy

Then as now, the country was suffering from a dangerous structural problem in the growing division between the fast-changing Iranian society and – in those days – the stagnant Qajar state.

The democratic activists – a colourful mixture of religious and secular, Muslim and non-Muslim groups – were demanding the establishment of state based on the rule of law, with a constitution and a parliament. Justice was one of their main demands; greater national sovereignty was another.

The clergy were only able to go along with these demands to a limited extent, since, although the constitutional revolution was committed to Islam in general terms and had no intention of interfering with the status of Shiism as the state religion, the legal provisions propagated by the pro-constitutional forces were not inspired by Muslim tradition. That led to conflict with conservative clerics.

Their radical spokesman, the leading scholar Fazlollah Nuri, had succeeded in getting the Shah to insist that the constitution should be based on Muslim law. Nuri paid for his agitation against the constitutional movement with his life. He was publicly hanged in Tehran on 31. July 1909 – later, Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution would declare Nuri to be one its pioneering figures.

A new dynasty adopts radical nationalism

Iranian parliamentary democracy found itself tested by a change of dynasty. Reza Khan Savad Kouhi started out as commander of the Persian Cossack Brigade. He moved up the government ranks from War Minister to Prime Minister, building his Brigade into an army, and making it his most important source of support. Finally he had himself crowned Shah in 1925. From then on, electoral manipulation and bribery of members of parliament became the order of the day.

As in the parliaments before Reza’s rule, one prime minister followed another in rapid succession, cabinets were short-lived and numerous. The Shah’s autocratic style of leadership was linked to a radical secular nationalism without fear of the clergy. In 1936, a ban on the use of the veil was imposed against the will of the country’s religious leadership; women who did not conform were publicly shamed.

After the Shah’s removal from power in 1941, his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlawi, was declared his successor by the British, and he adopted his father’s style of government. Under his regime too elections were regularly manipulated, candidates were chosen by loyal politicians and confirmed by the Shah personally.

For a long time the Shah refused to allow political parties, and when he finally did so, it was only in order to play them off against each other, and then forbid them again.

Repression under the mullahs

The Islamic Revolution, which, even more than the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, was driven by bitter resentment of the corrupt and repressive monarchy, adopted all the parliamentary inadequacies of its predecessor and even built on them.

Pre-selection of candidates by the Guardian Council and electoral manipulation became standard practice, as was the banning of political parties.

The powerlessness of the parliament, which under the Shah had already been reduced to a rubber stamp, became even more obvious, since the laws it passed had to be approved by the Guardian Council.

A regime with a future

In spite of its rigidity, Azimi considers the current regime in Tehran to be capable of surviving. The current religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he sees as a thoroughly pragmatic politician who is able to recognise the signs of the times.

Among those signs Azimi notes the massive flight from the countryside and the demographic changes which have taken place as a result, leading to a concentration in the cities of a rural and conservative class of voters.

Under that reading, it was President Ahmadinejad’s task to bind these new voters to the regime, after his predecessor Mohammad Khatami had tended to appeal to the better-placed classes among city-dwellers. The aim was to reduce the increasing potential for class conflict in Iranian society – even at the cost of limiting further democratisation.

Joseph Croitoru

© Qantara.de 2009

Joseph Croitoru is an expert on political Islam. His latest book is “Hamas. Der islamische Kampf um Palästina” (“Hamas: the Islamic struggle for Palestine”) C. H. Beck 2007

Fakhreddin Azimi: The Quest for Democracy in Iran. A Century of Struggle against Authoritarian Rule. Harvard University Press, Cambridge und London 2008, 513 pages


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