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What future
... for Iran?

By Manoutchehr M. Eskandari-Qajar
January 30, 2001
The Iranian

The political future of Iran is once again a matter of discussion among pundits in Washington and elsewhere, as a new administration tries to find its way through the corridors of the White House to the National Security room to map out America's interest beyond the Beltway. As regards the Middle East, and particularly Iran, the new administration got a well-timed tutorial, last week, by the heir to the Pahlavi throne, Reza Pahlavi II, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Press conference Editorial here

U.S. policy in the past eight years was one of slow, unofficial rapprochement between the two countries, a policy encouraged by influential thinkers in the academic and foreign policy establishment of Washington, D.C. This policy of rapprochement culminated in a limited lifting of economic sanctions against Iran last year, and was preceded by a warm reception of President Khatami at the World Summit of the United Nations.

Yet despite these efforts on the part of the U.S. and Iran at forging new ties, there remains the undeniable problem of the slow drift towards religious extremism in Iran. The rise of the radicals and their successful undermining of Khatami's "reforms", signals potential problems with the benign picture of Iran that has been drawn by policy and media wonks in Washington over the past few years.

Iran, once again, is more of a problem than a poster child for stability and reform. The Iranian political system seems back in the traditional throes of answering to crisis with authoritarianism and worse. Despite wishful thinking from Washington, that cycle has not yet been broken in Iran.

Into this arena steps the eldest son of the late shah of Iran, who proclaimed himself king, in exile, twenty years ago. As he himself acknowledges, everything about and around him, for good or ill, reminds people of his father and his father's reign in Iran. And yet, despite this baggage, Reza Pahlavi, as he likes to be referred to, has struck out on his own, saying he was "his own man" with his own ideas.

Part of that independence from the past has to do with the program that he presented to the assembled guests at the National Press Club. Part of it also has to do with his understanding of where the institution that he represents stands today, in history and in Iran.

The immediate reaction to the mention of monarchy, in Iran, and most everywhere else, is the conjuring up of the image of absolutism in diametrical opposition to what is now considered to be the preferred from of government of, by, and, above all, for the peoples of the world everywhere, democracy. So much negative has been asserted about monarchy, that the mildest epithet about it has been "anachronistic."

Much of the antipathy towards monarchy, however, has to do with a false dichotomy set up between it and democracy. This false dichotomy suffers from the basic fallacy of considering monarchy to be one thing only, namely absolute monarchy. If that were the case, then of course, there could be no greater opposition between government by the people and government by an absolute monarch. They are indeed opposites, and democrats everywhere are rightly opposed to this form of government on account of its interests being opposite to theirs, always.

But neither in the case of Iran, nor in many other countries with a monarchic past or present, for that matter, has monarchy only meant absolute monarchy. Constitutional monarchy, the other alternative, both in the case of Iran, and in other parts of the world, has neither been a system inimical to the people, nor antithetical to democracy, though it is different indeed from a republican form of government, the form most people associate with democracy.

It was this form of monarchy Reza Pahlavi mentioned in his lecture at the National Press Club, and he presented it to the assembled guests as the form of government he stands for and represents. Let us look at this proposed alternative, without quickly dismissing it out of hand. Can constitutional monarchy have a future in Iran and be a solution to the impasse Iranian politics finds itself in today? Here are a few thoughts.

Iran today is a deeply divided country. If Iran's present ruling elite were to disappear from the scene without the possibility of interfering in future political outcomes, it would still be unlikely that the country would soon find an acceptable solution for a replacement. Some form of interim dictatorship or, alternatively, a civil war of some duration, have been suggested as possible outcomes for the vacuum that would be left behind if the present regime would disappear. Peaceful democratic transition, has not, ever, been suggested as the next step in the political saga of Iran.

Just as the political forces inside and outside Iran are deeply divided as to the political future of Iran, so are also Iranians in general. At this moment, Iranians are so polarized and angry at their century-long ordeal of dashed hopes and aspirations, that it is often all but impossible to even broach the subject of politics and the political future of Iran without inviting long litanies on all sides and more.

With almost messianic fervor, Iranians have waited for a system that would save them from the roller-coaster ride of hopes and dashed hopes, investing, each time, their aspirations for salvation in this or that strongman, from Reza Shah, to Mohammad Reza Shah, to Mossadegh, back to Mohammad Reza Shah, to Ayatollah Khomeini, and finally to Khatami, only to realize that all these saviors had feet of clay of one sort or another, and the Iranian people were ultimately always left holding the bag.

Now, Iranians find themselves again at a cross-roads of sorts. Iranians have tired of promises impossible to keep. They have realized this much at least, that their present regime is incapable of the kinds of reforms they wish for. It is incapable of delivering because reform is equivalent to demise for the most ardent and influential supporters of the present regime. The Iranian people tried and now find that this option has pretty much exhausted itself. Now their choice remains to stay with the present regime, living with the same kind of impasses and arbitrariness and make do, or to seek and look for alternatives. Alternatives do exist, and in his speech, Reza Pahlavi broached the subject of one of those alternatives.

The Iranian polity has been composed of three essential institutions from the time of the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-09: the mosque, the parliament, and the shah. Two of the above named institutions have had their ascendancy to excess in the last seventy five years, defeating the balance that these institutions were supposed to play in the political system of Iran. Now is the time to look again at the third of these, the majles, to come into its own.

A democratic system in Iran must, however, include the other two institutions if it does not want to fall prey to the same impulses that defined much of the last century in Iran. What Iran needs now is to look back at its roots in the Constitution of 1906.

Nothing is more genuinely Iranian than a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament and prime-minister. Iran was the first country in the Middle East to achieve this feat. Yes, it did not invent the concept, but it brought it to fruition in an area of the world that until then had only experienced autocratic rule, but never government by true expression of the will of the people.

What made Iran's solution "Iranian" was that it incorporated this most ancient of Iranian institutions, monarchy, with a guarantee of justice and fairness through an elected and effective parliament, but that it also included within it the recognition for a religious grounding of society, which is an indelible part of the Iranian experience as well.

When constitutional monarchy fell in Iran in 1921, it fell for a variety of reasons. It fell because the British had different needs in Iran at the time. It also fell because a streak in the Iranian psyche reared its ugly head yet again, the cry for strongmen, resulting in the cycle of hope and dashed hopes that has characterized the last seventy five years of Iranian history.

Now, however, Iranians have the benefit of almost a century of experimentation with rule by strongmen and the results that such a Faustian bargain has brought them. Now Iranians could prove themselves foresighted enough to realize that their polarized polity needs a neutral center that anchors it to its most ancient past without fettering it to past excesses.

At the turn of this century, Iranians would do well to hark back to the turn of the last and draw their inspiration from it. Far from being a step back, this would truly be a step forward for all parties concerned. With one fell swoop, this solution would solve the problem of the role of the clergy and their constituencies, it would also take into consideration the wishes and aspirations of the monarchist constituency, but above all it would satisfy the aspirations of that most long suffering element in Iranian society, its believers in democracy, who through their elected parliament and prime-minister would finally have the voice that was denied them for almost a century.

The most radical of the clerical factions will not step aside willingly. But clerical leaders can be found again who would speak of the acceptability of the 1906 constitutional arrangement, now as they did then. All could win except the most rabid of factions on the far left and the far right, but that would hardly be a loss for the country or the world.

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