Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Point of No Return: Iran's Path to Democracy - The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Author: Mohsen Sazegara

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The conflict between modernity and tradition during the last two centuries in Iran is an unresolved problem. Its most important aspect isthe conflict between democracy and despotism. The nation of Iran has tried on numerous occasions and through various means to solve this problem but has yet to succeed.

Iran’s Islamic Revolution is the latest mistake. The regime that resulted from this revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran, has been defeated in many respects. It has failed not only in the economic domain but also in its cultural, social, and political accomplishments. The defeat of this regime has been not simply the defeat of an ideological, revolutionary, maximalistic version of Islam, but also the defeat of all the revolutionary products of Iranian intellectualism of the 1960s, whether Muslim or Marxist, secular or religious.

The present regime is in the midst of a legitimacy crisis. The regime has tried unsuccessfully to reform itself. It conspicuously lacks popular legitimacy and finds itself unable to address the problems of the country and the people or even its own problems. In addition, the reform movement that aimed to change the regime from within has been defeated. The combination of an illegitimate regime and a lack of prospects for internal change has put the country on the razor’s edge.

CHANGING SOCIETY
To understand where the country is headed requires examining how Iran has changed since 1979 during the course of the Islamic Republic. Many transformations have evolved from within Iranian society, such as spreading urbanism, improved literacy, increased involvement of women in social and economic affairs, growth of industry, and intensification of international relations. Among their other effects, those changes have had a profound political effect: each one has pushed the society toward democracy.

Along with these societal transformations, elites and intellectuals have changed their ideas. No longer are revolutionary ideas the dominant theme. Indeed, a new paradigm of liberalism and democracy is apparent in Iran. Members of the young Iranian generation, who form an absolute majority of the country, appreciate this new paradigm and reflect those changes within society more than other social groups.

In addition to the changes within Iran, foreign and internal changes in the policies of other countries toward democracy have affected Iranian society. The role of the United States has vastly increased, particularly after its interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The democratic changes in Turkey, one of Iran’s closest neighbors, have also been very influential.

The changes taking place within opposition groups provide another force for democracy. Contrary to Iran’s Islamic Revolution and overthrow of the shah, in which none of the main opposition groups had democratic ideals, most of the groups opposing the Islamic Republic support democracy.

CHANGING REGIME
On the other side of this equation is the regime itself. The Islamic Republic of Iran has passed
through three stages (or republics):
  1. The republic of revolution and war - from the successful revolution until the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini (1979–1989). In this period, all of the revolutionary ideas were applied. The result was a disaster and complete defeat for the Iranian people.
  2. The republic of terror (1989–1997). In this period, economic policies began to change, but because of poor policies in cultural, social, and political affairs, such economic reforms were not successful.
  3. The republic of reform (1997–2004). In this period, democracy, human rights, civil society, and good international relations were the goals of the reformists. However, it became quickly apparent that reaching those goals within the framework of the present constitution was impossible.

The third republic has now ended. The country is on the path toward a fourth republic, which will not be an Islamic republic. Though Iran’s leader and some Islamists wish to return to the policies and values of the first republic, this retreat is not possible. The conflict between the majority view—which desires democratic governance and freedom— and the current leadership is leading to a crisis in the nation. The changes that have already occurred within Iran have set the country on a path toward democracy from which there is no turning back, no matter what the temporary setbacks.

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