Demands for democratization inherent in some aspects of the revolutionary process have, until recently, gone largely unaddressed. The formation of political parties was not precluded by Iran’s 1979 constitution which in Article 26 provides that
the formation of parties, societies, political or professional associations, as well as religious societies, whether Islamic or pertaining to one of the recognized religious minorities, is permitted provided they do not violate the principles of independence, freedom, national unity, the criteria of Islam, or the basis of the Islamic Republic.
The understanding was further restricted, however, by a political parties law which was passed in September 1981. This law restricted the emergence of parties by making party formation dependent on obtaining a permit from the Ministry of the Interior.
Article 10 of the law established a commission of the ministry comprising two Majlis deputies, two representatives from the Judiciary, and one from the interior ministry to issue the permits. The commission was also supposed to supervise the activities of the parties and organizations it approved, and order the dissolution of parties engaged in activities contrary to the law. Offenses included activities that could undermine the foundations of the Islamic Republic or Iran’s independence, or intensify conflicts within the Iranian nation.
Thus, the over 100 political organizations which suddenly “sprang into being” in the initial turmoil after the revolution were almost immediately suppressed. The Iran-Iraq War pushed them further into the background, and Iran became, in effect, a one party state under the ruling Islamic Republican Party (IRP). The IRP was the only functioning political party from 1979-1986 when it was “voluntarily” dissolved.
With the war’s conclusion, concerns about the economy and demands for broader mass participation once again emerged. Still, while several groups served as quasi-parties, as of the 1997 presidential election, authentic parties were not a reality. Nevertheless, many new voters — especially women and young people — were drawn into the political arena by debates over social and cultural freedoms as well as by calls for political pluralism and the establishment of parties.
The election of Mohammad Khatami paid more than lip service to such demands. On several occasions, Khatami said that
if properly formed — that is, not imposed from above or planted from outside — parties were important. A ‘self-sufficient and advanced society’, he said, ‘cannot last without civil societies, which include political parties’. Khatami’s impressive election victory, noted one Tehran daily, created an atmosphere of ‘great expectations’ in which people were ‘assuming that the system [would] permit the re-establishment of political parties and application of democratic politics’.
Since Khatami’s election, though, Iran has witnessed its most violent clashes since the revolution. In July 1999, reform minded youth confronted religious hardliners in the streets of Tehran leaving unresolved the prospects for — or timing of — an Iranian transition to democracy. Many of those who voted for President Khatami beaome increasingly dissatisfied with the slow pace of reform. While the first local council elections in Iran were held in February 1999, some argue that they had no real significance.
An Iranian businessman quoted in The Financial Times says they were
just another bone thrown to the people to keep them quiet. What authority are these councils going to have beyond ruling over garbage disposal?
Indeed, President Khatami hoped that the new councils would have fiscal and political authority to manage schools, housing, roads, and small development projects without having to consult the central government in Tehran.
As with the Poder Popular in Cuba, some saw this move toward local control as democracy in action. Others, however, were more cynical, noting that so long as the central bureaucracy retained authority over budgetary allocations, empowerment at the local or grassroots level could only be token, nothing more than a pressure valve. Moreover, concern over the nation’s economy raised questions about whether it would be possible for a democratic movement to take hold.
Reportedly, most Iranians were forced to work more than one job, manufacturing was operating at barely 30% of capacity, inflation was running more than double the official rate of 18%, and the majority of the population was living below the poverty level.
Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi argue, however, that this situation need not be determinative. Democracy is not linked to economic growth they say, and, thus,
the vision of the relation between development that dominated the intellectual mood and served to orient U.S. foreign policy during the cold war years appears strangely convoluted.
Obviously, we will have to wait sometime before it is possible to make an authoritative assessment of Iran’s possibilities. What is clear, however, is that the US presence in Iran during the Cold War years did nothing to facilitate democracy. Rather, American actions, particularly the CIA intervention in 1953, subverted the constitution, minimizing the opportunity for democratic institutions and processes to take hold.
Photograph by Beshef (Flickr)
Readers interested in this topic may want to consult the following sources:
Stephen C. Fairbanks, “Theocracy Versus Democracy: Iran Considers Political Parties.” The Middle East Journal Volume 52 Number 1 (Winter 1998).
Adam Przeworksi and Fernando Limongi, “Modernization: Theories and Facts,” World Politics 49:2 (1997).