What happened

Iran is one of the few countries in the world that has had three revolutions in the past 100 years. It was in 1905 when a Constitutional Revolution took place in Iran. In 1979, under the aegis of the Islamic Revolution, another social revolution took place in Iran. The presidential elections of 2005 may be considered as a third revolution via the ballot box. How can we understand this extraordinary phenomenon?

What is happening in Iran can be better seen in comparative perspective. Since 1776, word history has been witnessing a continuing democratic revolution. However, democracy itself has assumed different faces: liberal, social, and communitarian. The Puritan Revolution in Britain in 1688 and the 18th century social revolutions in the United States and France inaugurated liberal democratic revolutions in the world. In 1848, they were followed by liberal democratic revolutions in Germany and Italy. At the turn of the 20th century, Russia, China, Iran, and Egypt also experienced what can be identified as liberal democratic revolutions.

The Great World Depression of 1930s inaugurated another phase in democratic development, which may be called social rather than liberal. The failure of world capitalism to tame itself led to a failure of effective demand until World War II broke through economic stagnation. During this critical decade, the United States and some of the Western European countries adopted social measures that corrected the inherent capitalist tendency to exacerbate inequalities. Measures such as social security, unemployment compensation, and government regulations were instituted under the New Deal in the United States.

The Islamic Revolution in Iran combined elements of the liberal, social, and communitarian democratic revolutions. Its Islamic ideological cover may have camouflaged its content. But a close reading of the Islamic Constitution and political practice in Iran in 1979-2005 can demonstrates a complex mix of liberal electioneering, social democratic regulations on behalf of the lowest strata, and a communitarian zeal for the Shia Islamic identity.

During the past 25 years of revolution, a capitalist revolution has taken place in Iran. The Islamic revolution removed the last vestiges of military-feudal fetters and unleashed the merchant-clerical class. Hashemi-Rafsanjani was the most notable political leader of the capitalist revolution. He also symbolized the great gaps that capitalism has generated in a society that champions an egalitarian Islamic ideology.

The elections of 2005 in Iran pitted three types of political leaders against each other. At the risk of over-simplification, we may identify the political landscape in Iran as follows. Hashemi represented a continuing capitalist, clerical-merchant revolution.

Khatami and his followers (notably Moin) represented the middle class liberal democracy. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to represent the lowest strata of society in the rural areas and urban slums. He also came out of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij ranks, important channels for upward social mobility. Notably, he was the son of a blacksmith who had climbed the social ladder through the military. He symbolized the legendary Kaveh, the son of a blacksmith in Iranian history who had led a successful revolt against the tyranny of Zahhak. He had proved his managerial capabilities as the Mayor of Tehran, a mega-city of about 12 millions. Populism was his ideology. In his championship of Iranian independence, his nationalism was beyond reproach.

Will Ahmadinejad’s presidency lead to a totalitarian regime similar to what happened in Germany under Hitler, Italy under Mussolini, Japan under Emperor Hirohito, or Argentina under Peron? Will it turn into what happened under the Abbasid Caliphate in the 10-13 centuries when the recruited Turkish slave-soldiers took over the regime? Or will it evolve into a liberal-social-communitarian democratic regime?

As in the rest of world, democracy in Iran is an unfinished journey. It will face many detours, include authoritarian regimes. Relations with the rest of the world, and particularly with the United States, matter. If Iran is ostracized, internal politics will largely determine its course. If it is acknowledged, as China was by the United States after Nixon’s trip to Beijing, Iran would have to gradually assume the global standards of human rights and democratic practices.

Majid Tehranian is Director of the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research in Honolulu, Hawaii.  He is the author of Bridging a Gulf: Peace in West Asia (London, I. B. Tauris, 2003).

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